Fiona Apple has always been a pain in the ass.
From the moment her eating disordered-looking body crawled through Mark Romanek’s “Criminal” video, she confronted America as a specter of what desirability and the long teeth of its bite meant. Clearly a brilliant young writer, she was strung up like the heroin chic waif-ery then populating the fashion magazines, smoldering anger beneath the kind of hollow-eyed youthful beauty that withstands debauchery and beckons.
Impossibly contentious, album titles seemingly a mile long, awards acceptance speeches decrying everything about fame, stringy hair, a sullen being, she was the dysthymic bookend or tragic ending to riot girl ferocity.
Unless you actually listened.
In a world where mansplaining, glass ceilings, Times Up, “step up” and Harvey Weinstein set the norm, the New York-born, part-time California-raised songwriter represented an inconvenient truth: how women genuinely felt. The doubts, obsessions, tortures, realities that plagued everything about girls who opted out of the perky, positive Elle Woods trope. And she didn’t care about anything in the wake of those things that quaked her.
In many ways, Fetch The Bolt Cutters continues that raw knuckled relationship with the truth.
The classically-trained musician seeks on myriad planes: musically, lyrically, personally and as a woman who eschews tags, yet offers an evolved feminism that unpacks betrayal, responsibility and sisterhood. Just as importantly, Fetch is sonically so engaging, it sucks you into the tracks, drags you along, but makes you smile as you’re caught up in its rhythmic eddies and waves.
Beginning with “I Want You To Love Me” with its pulsing opening tease to the piano ripples, Apple creates a record that’s as spacious as it is intentional. Time signatures change, notes retard and orchestral flourishes knead the song, then recede. Ultimately, her voice, now an earthy soul howl, sweeps up the sparks and throbs of sexual consumption without parody.
There is room – on even the densest tracks — between the layers, allowing the instruments to spread out as her emotions expand to fill each song. Some of those emotions are complicated. The stop-start “Shameika,” the possibly mean girl who tells the outsider she “has potential,” serves as a gateway to self-worth to a kid cast as a loser, who grows up to be “funny, pissed off and warm,” while the syncopated “Newspaper” tackles the desire she feels to be friends with the woman her lover prefers, even as she impales the way society pits women against each other.
In many ways, Fetch serves as the emancipation of Fiona Apple, who creates a roux of so many influences and voices as she offers a song cycle encouraging female coming together in a world of (inserted) competition, brokered stereotypes, desire and rejecting what society puts on women to make them docile. “Fetch” proffers a Rickie Lee Jones speak-sing ramble as she announces it is time to emerge from the mean girl gatekeepers — “You maim on defense, but you kill on offense…” She owns the damage they cause, even as she tentatively reaches for the sun, embraces the way life should be.
The laconic “Ladies,” which moves from shuffle to stroll, gently admonishes and invites women to recognize the inherent grace inside each other as they move through the lives of the men who will pair with them. “Nobody can replace anybody else,” she wails a reality-checking truth, “It would be a shame to make it a competition…It would be insane to make a comparison.”
Still, she remains dyspeptic. “Under The Table” brazenly rejects the be a good girl ethos, leaning into the promise she will say what’s on her mind no matter what. Calling out ruthless ambition and its bruising realities, the backstabbing and moral bankruptcies, “Table” is a quiet furor which tumbles into the double Dutch rhythmed “Relay,” with its pivoting tribal beat chorus that lists her resentments and refusal to become part of the rat race.
Bits of Nina Symone, Kate Bush, Beyonce, Tori Amos, Marianne Faithful, even Billie Eilish color the work, which is as original as it is intriguing. Cymbals, supermodels (Cara Delavigne on “Fetch”), gates crashing, harps, horns, industrial tones twine through the tracks that are often built on a drum part and Apple’s angst-steeled alto. It all offers the kind of tracks that pull you in, just as the grooves move you before you realize the swaying or bouncing is happening.
When an album of deep portals of truth works as music, evocative or delightful, often both, it’s realized a higher purpose. No doubt just scratching at her own life and the people she knows, Apple has delivered something stealth, something that feels good and empowers.
Come for the music, then sink into the songs. The neo-gospel “For Her,” all stomp’n swagger, is a harrowing tale of Me, Too assault; it slow burns its way into realization of the line-crossed, the complicity of shame and female-engendered beliefs, just as the desire of “Rack of His” and the closing “On I Go” propel the songstress through sexual liason and ultimately self-acceptance.
Vulnerable and tough, self-aware and bruised, Fetch The Bolt Cutters shines the way only a woman recognizing her own power and embracing it can.
Vive la Liberation!