When an artist achieves stratospheric fame at a young age, either in terms of praise or notoriety, they become immortalized in it, their actions fossilized in aspic, and for Fiona Apple, it was the latter.
Even in 2020, features and reviews left and right never fail to mention her infamous 1997 “This world is bullshit” VMAs speech (fiction is not exempt from this; Hulu’s “Little Fires Everywhere” character Izzy cites the singer as inspiration for her teenage rebellion).
Ask someone if they can name a Fiona Apple song today, and the first one that probably comes to mind is the sleazy cinematography of “Criminal,” released when she was just 20.
Of course, the singer has, in fact, grown up; 2012’s “The Idler Wheel…” was devastating in its vivisection of love and its complexities. But on her fifth album “Fetch The Bolt Cutters,” Apple is a kid in the best possible ways.
The unbridled emotions in her cravings for affection and temper tantrums, give-zero-Fs honesty in her irreverence and call-outs, expansive imagination in a bark-filled, vocal-thrashing sonic landscape — they all mesh together for a whip-smart and eccentric masterpiece.
“I Want You To Love Me” opens up the album, disjunctively at first with Casio drums and cymbal crashes until the piano melody swoops in, soars to the sky bird-like, and on the wings of the black-and-white keys, Apple’s vocals float.
“And by that time, I hope that / Youuuuu love me,” she wishes with starry eyes, savoring the taste of the word “you” until her breath near collapses, but by the second verse, the yearnings become corporeal, felt in every “particle” of her being.
Her gravely alto becomes visceral, belting at the top of her chest voice and spitting out alliterative plosives like gunshots: “Bang it / Bite it / Bruise it.” The energy is phrenetic towards the end, her fairy-witch hiccup-chuckles near hysteric, but it becomes the perfect segue for the sprawling and percussive piano of the next track.
Dedicated to her adolescence, Apple is anxious (“Grinding my teeth”), rebellious (“I wasn’t afraid of the bullies”), and inspiring (“I had potential”) on “Shameika,” and like the battleground of her psyche, its sound is at odds with itself.
Punctuating piano chords precede punk-rock shrieks and guitar riffs, and when her punny sacrilege “Hurricane Gloria in excelsis deo” storms in, all hell breaks loose with the chaos of paradox (“pissed-off, funny, and warm”) before slowing the engine down for the title track.
The contrast is stark, near-startling. If “Shameika” were Apple frantic with freedom running at breakneck pace, “Fetch The Bolt Cutters” is Apple walking around in the prison of her own mind, the metal butterfly clangs becoming cell bars clanks.
Twangy Americana bass and Cara Delevingne meows make Apple’s spoken-word rambles feel lullabic in comparison to its predecessor, but its insights are penetrating. No person is exempt from the gossip of high school hallways, of not being “stylish enough,” making “the noise that/ People make when they don’t know sh–,” but Apple jabs back with the truth: “I grew up in the shoes they told me I could fill.”
Her voice becomes hushed to a whisper during the song’s isolating and paranoiac ending, each dog bark filling the harrowing emptiness in vain; as a result, the self-assured defiance of “Under The Table” and “Relay” becomes that much sweeter.
Apple rolls her eyes and folds her arms on the former, repeating the lyric “I won’t shut up” ad-distorting-nauseum like a child folding his arms in stubborn disobedience, while the latter broils each lyric in rage.
“I resent you resenting your life like a f—ing propaganda brochure,” she spits out on top of spiritual-like mmms before her yelps and clattering jangles take center stage.
“Rack of His” finds Apple on the other side of the spectrum, infatuated to the point of obsession. “I followed you from room to room with no attention” might as well be a line out of Netflix’s stalker-romance series “You.”
But her disillusionment with love and its “coochie-coo-coups” become even more visceral: “There’s the kick in you givin’ up/ ‘Cause you know you don’t like it.”
Reality becomes even more of a horror film on “Newspaper,” the opening percussion and devouring bass like the eerie door creaks that forebode gore, Apple a spectator to the blood that will spill as her ex takes on another lover. The tempo starts to speed up, the bomb ticking down (“And you’re wearin’ time like a flowery crown”) until both women are left in the wake of a destructive man, struggling to survive (“Tryin’ not to let my light go out”).
In the aftermath of “Newspaper,” the poetry-slam-turned-drunken-toast of “Ladies” almost seems impossible, but its shimmering Mellotron and Apple’s comedic delivery (“Cuter than a button/ Mutton-head maniac”) are committed to its light-hearted, live-and-let-live atmosphere.
“Heavy Balloon” is the closest Apple gets to replication, its production almost like HAIM’s “My Song 5” interpreted by Sky Ferreira, but the similarities are slight, and the analogy falls apart there.
Her grit is unmatched while she conquers the insurmountable like a fairy tale story (“I climb like peas and beans”) and hopes hopelessly against the expiry date of romance on “Cosmonaut.”
Love’s first sight is easy and cosmic, but time has a way of weathering away its magic and bringing lovers down to earth: “You and I will be a couple of cosmonauts/ Except with way more gravity than what we started off,” Apple sings clunkily amidst twinkling Wurlitzers.
The stereoscope of idealism and reality, of past and present, is jarring and discordant by the end of the song, and all that’s left is the debris of whispers.
Despite Apple’s aversion to listening to new music, those viral and spoof “how to make *insert song here* at home” Instagram videos find their way onto “For Her,” filled with a menagerie of snaps, claps, and cymbals before a virtual a cappella choir of Fiona Apples trickles in.
The effect is flooring. A wall of sound that makes her singular voice even more thunderous (“You raped me in the same bed/ Your daughter was born in”), yet creates a heavenly sunshine to bask in (think Barnum’s “Afternoon on a Hill”).
“Drumset,” while it doesn’t boast the swaggering immensity of “For Her,” feels just as sharp in its blunt simplicity. “Why did you not want to try/ why did you take it all away,” Apple asks, left with commiserating (“Now, I understand/ you’re a human”) heartache and “screaming” holes in her home where the “drumset… and rug” of love used to be.
The last word belongs to “On I Go” though. Stomps and water tower whacks emphasize each metrical accent, an electric bass and autoharp whirling around to create a dizzying fugue, but Apple’s voice cuts through the dissonance.
But now, I only move to move.
It is a statement of triumph, of towering above the bull—- Apple spoke of in the late 1990s to emerge victorious over misogyny and sexual controversy and with a sense of self. “Fetch the bolt cutters,” the album cover says in the handwritten scrawl of a preschooler; truth is, Apple has already found her freedom.