“Every single night’s a fight, and every single fight’s all right with my brain; I just want to feel everything.”
With this short, simple, knotty and beautiful sequence of words from her 2012 single “Every Single Night”, Fiona Apple summarised, with typical eloquence, why her music so quickly became an essential part of the pop canon when she debuted in the mid-to-late ’90s.
One of pop history’s most venerated and misunderstood figures, Apple has, for the past two decades, been on a quest to simply “feel everything”, resulting in a songbook that contains more empathy than most artists could dream of invoking.
She’s never backed down from a decent fight, never pandered, and has come to symbolise a kind of fearlessness, edging closer to her goal with each successive album.
Released in 1996 when she was just 19, her debut, Tidal, was an oceanic masterpiece of sleek, orchestral pop, a collection of wise and refreshingly sceptical missives on the dark games men play with young women. When The Pawn…, her 1999 sophomore album, dealt with the acidic and misogynist vitriol received after Tidal became a surprise success and Apple proved unwilling to play by the industry’s unwritten rules for female stars. In the album’s most galvanising moments, Apple bared her teeth: “Call me crazy, hold me down, make me cry, get off now, baby,” she sang on the single “Limp”. The combative spirit she showed on Tidal had now brought her to glorious, cathartic blows.
With the new millennium, Apple’s music became only more idiosyncratic: 2005’s Extraordinary Machine flirted with both loungey acoustic arrangements and the squelch of early-’00s hip-hop. The Idler Wheel…, released in 2012 after seven years spent largely in reclusion, introduced a warmer, more intense, more focused side of Apple – and finally vocalised her once-implicit desire to feel everything.
Apple’s fifth album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, was released this week, unceremoniously, with a marketing campaign that consisted only of a video, posted by Apple’s roommate Zelda Hallman, of the singer’s dog Mercy running on a beach. It picks up, roughly, where The Idler Wheel… left off – it’s a clear relative, with familiar DNA, but a wilder, wiser cousin, with unkempt hair and bare feet. It is rough and chaotic, and, unsurprisingly, profoundly charming – a natural and naturalistic work from an artist who’s never been afraid of getting dirty in service of her artistic goals.
The title, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, comes from a line in the British television drama The Fall. In the finale of the show’s second season, boltcutters are needed to prise open a room in which a girl has been tortured. It’s a canny shift in perspective – Apple is now the investigator, an overseer, rather than a victim or, indeed, a criminal. Fetch the Bolt Cutters finds her taking an omniscient view of the world around her; rarely an active character in many of the album’s songs, she now writes like someone yelling at the TV, a provider of advice, issuing warnings and bemoaning others’ bad decisions.
This new angle is most evident on the harrowing “Newspaper”, a twisted highlight of both this album and Apple’s entire catalogue. Over faint choral harmonies and a constant pound of percussion, she sings to the new victim of a man who once abused her, obsessing over the new woman while lamenting her own inability to intervene.
“I wonder what lies he’s telling you about me to make sure that we’ll never be friends,” she mutters, before bellowing: “It’s a shame because you and I didn’t get a witness!”
The impact is profound, the pain experienced not abject and direct as it once was on Apple’s records. But the distance – Apple pounding on a window, screaming an unheard warning to this other woman – makes the song all the more chilling.
The goofier but no less complicated “Rack of His” has a similar effect; although Apple says it is about her own life, there’s a new distance between herself and her subject that gives the song a fabulist quality. “I’ve been used so many times,” she sings, casually, late in the track. Here, she breaks that cycle, offering her poetry like advice designed for a younger self.
These songs, along with a handful of others on Fetch the Bolt Cutters, take a unique interest in Apple’s complex relationships with other women. On “Shameika”, she turns an inspiring quote from a childhood acquaintance into a kind of mantra that offsets Apple’s spiralling neuroses: the line “Shameika said I had potential” abruptly stops the song’s bounding piano and Apple’s motormouth lyrics in their tracks.
The spare “For Her”, like “Newspaper”, interrogates an unbalanced relationship from the outside, finding Apple savaging a man who treats his wife cruelly before he shows off an emotional side during “awards season”. This song rides a wild, percussive beat before it breaks open, Apple crowing the line “Good mornin’! Good mornin’! You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in!” It is an upsetting exclamation, the song’s head-spinning pivot bringing its subtext to the fore: one abuse of power can so easily become another. Apple has always been a fearless, generous writer, but her essence here – protective, powerful, angry – reveals the sheer depth of her bravery, how much it has grown in the eight years since her previous record.
That bravery often expands into something resembling cheek, a new coolness. My favourite part of Fetch the Bolt Cutters is the way Apple boasts and teases, dipping occasionally into sung-spoken passages delivered with a wry, mischievous smile. “Check out that rack of his, look at that row of guitar necks,” she says on the jolting march that is “Rack of His”. “Lined up like eager fillies, outstretched like legs of Rockettes. They don’t know what they are in for, and they don’t care, but I do.” She elongates the words “I do” like a threat, speaking with a swagger rarely heard on previous albums.
On the album’s title track, a stunning spiral of poetry set to warm upright bass, the clatter of kitchenware and Mercy’s barks, Apple speaks in a jazzy, lilting meter – reminiscent of Joni Mitchell or the Chicago rapper Noname – about the troubled early years of her career: “Those it girls hit the ground comparing the way I was to the way she was … I listened because I hadn’t found my own voice yet, so all I could hear was the noise that people make when they don’t know shit.” Her writing is as incisive as ever; the evolution here is her newfound forcefulness.
“I have a temper,” Apple confessed in a recent New Yorker profile. “I have lots of rage inside. I have lots of sadness inside of me.” That rage surges, unfettered, from her on Fetch the Bolt Cutters. But it doesn’t fester, it doesn’t corrode the art; instead, it blooms into compassion and love, warmth and wisdom. Apple’s ability to draw so much from such a spare palette is an astonishing skill – the finest tool of an artist who, after 20-odd years of striving, is finally feeling everything.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 18, 2020 as "Apple blossoms".
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