I’ve never been “into” Fiona Apple. For me, the 90s were a musical black hole. I first came to know her at the Ohana Festival a couple of years ago. She played some of what she was working on for Fetch the Bolt Cutters, and a bunch of covers. There was a moment, I remember exactly when it was. She started playing “Money Changes Everything,” and it was the exact moment when I figured out what she was playing that I fell in love with her. She was the best act at a festival of a lot of great acts.
Still, I never went back to listen to her albums. Someday, I will. But having not done that gives me a certain perspective to review this new album.
Here’s the thing. This is introspection. It mines deep and reveals a lot. That makes for extraordinary music. Apple recorded and self-produced Fetch the Bolt Cutters in her home studio with a core band consisting of Amy Alieen Wood on drums, bassist Sebastian Steinberg, and David Garza on guitar. Wood’s father, John Would, a sound engineer, helped develop the elaborate mixes. Amber Maggart (Apple’s sister), Dave Way, and Tchad Blake also played roles. Apple plays piano on some tracks and a variety of percussion, often using sounds from the Venice Beach house where she lives. Even the dogs get a spotlight.
Eerily, there’s a sense of a negative-Van-Morrison-thing going on. Where Van would insist that he didn’t have all the answers when his music said he did, on “Fetch,” Apple comes across as if she’s got them all now when, the music makes obvious, she doesn’t. And that’s ok, because here’s the thing — She’s not preaching. She’s not telling you how to be. She’s only answering her own questions. It’s quite something. But I saw one review that said Apple delivers “something that feels good and empowers.” I don’t think so. It’s not universal. It’s not necessarily for you and me. But we’re invited in anyway. Maybe you feel differently. But it feels like I shouldn’t be there. Yet, she’s letting me. And that’s what makes it so good.
The style harkens to Smile-era Brian Wilson, which probably makes sense in a lot of ways. The piano-based songs with a simple allure despite their lack of simplicity. The percussion, the experimentation vocally, the dogs. She didn’t bring in Paul McCartney to munch the carrots, and she finished the damn thing in 8 years rather than, what was it, 30.
In content, though, there’s little comparison. Wilson was going for the universal. The deepness that we shared. No matter how “balanced” we might be, “Wonderful” resonated with us all just as it did for him. These are MY Wind Chimes. In “We Belong Together,” Ricky Lee Jones gave it to us from a similar albeit younger place. A universality that you can’t not know. Apple’s songs on “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” are so specific to a particular inner life that a lot of people, most people, won’t really understand. Apple is 42, and maybe, just maybe, you can do something at that age that the younger Smile-Era Wilson and Pirates-Era Jones couldn’t pull off. And by the time they were old enough, well, you can be the judge of that.
These are not criticisms. These are observations. These are NOT MY Bolt Cutters. But I admire Apple for showing them to me.
So, let’s get into it. Fetch swings through a life of hard living from school days to young professional days to guys suck days.
“I Want You to Love Me” starts things off with two introductions. First, there’s a catchy bass and cymbal thing. Then, a big-chord piano thing with running notes suggesting forward movement. The song is a cry for love by someone who acknowledges that the path will only continue. “I want someone to want, and I want you . . . to love me” “I’ve been waiting for you . . . to love me.” But what does this mean? Why should you? Just because I want you to? Apparently. There’s more than a passing resemblance here to “I Want You to Want Me,” only, of course, from 180-degree different place. I’m ok with that. “Didn’t I, didn’t I, didn’t I see you crying,” though.
“Shameika” has to be in the running for saddest song ever written. I woman in her forties is remembering the utter horror that was her childhood, highlighted with check marks made to count the passing of the second hand and memories of what the other kids said about her. Shameika said she had potential. But “Shameika wasn’t gentle and she wasn’t my friend.” The singer didn’t even know what potential was at the time. Chances are, Shameika didn’t either. Yet, now, 30 years later, “when the fall is torrential, I’ll recall, Shameika said I had potential.” Oh my God.
“Fetch The Bolt Cutters,” the song, sounds like the next step. It’s the struggles-with-fame thing. But there won’t be an implosion. She’s not equipped to — but she has to — run up that hill even though the shoes she was given weren’t made to do it. But that won’t stop her. She’ll be there on time and she’ll pay the cost. For wanting things that can only be found . . . But first, she needs the bolt cutters to cut through the demons that have locked her in. The bass, voices, dogs all come together perfectly. She’s free, “whatever happens,” which is a sentiment that the Boss acknowledge at the time. But then, he wasn’t 42 either when he wrote “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” “Fetch The Bolt Cutters” is a triumph of a song.
Fetch strikes me as the first in a run of songs on this album that, while sung in second person, are actually being sung by the singer to herself. “Under the Table” and “Relay” are, to my ears, similarly complex songs built around a single evocative line. “I would beg to disagree but begging disagrees with me.” Most reviews I’ve seen suggest these songs show a singer lashing out at old love interests. I’m not sure about that. “Under the Table” in that context would be pretty trite. She can blast out at idiots at a party, but she can’t stand up to some guy who wants her to go to that party and has to kick her under the table. I’m thinking that it’s really a conversation between her two selves. One that knows she should stay out of certain situations, but yet she can’t keep herself from them.
This seems even more (or is it less) true of “Relay.” Here, the line is “Evil is a relay sport, when the one who’s burned turns to pass the torch.” Apple pulled this lyric from something she’d written as a teenager. Think about it. Doesn’t it suggest that she resents parts of herself. Not some guy. Even the nun-like singing at the end suggests introspection to me. This is, after all, the woman who once wrote: “How can I ask anyone to love me / When all I do is beg to be left alone?”
“Rack of His” may be the unrequited love song that it seems to be. “Newspaper” is the next step. A song to the new flame of your Ex. I’m sure that there are guys like this. But it’s hard from me to understand. Why would a tough, independent-minded woman fall for this guy in the first place? There’s plenty of guys who want their ex’s and current partner to be friends. Ladies is the third in this trilogy. Of I’m-telling-you-this-guy-sucks songs. On the surface. Again, it’s hitting me as if she’s talking to herself. Why do I pick these guys? Why don’t I listen to myself? She’s clearly not talking about one guy. She has serial experience with the phenomenon, and even ignored the advice of the ex-wife of a former ex.
Heavy Balloon is the best song on the album. “People like us,” for whom life does not come easy, “who get so heavy and so lost sometimes.” You can’t get lower than the ground. But you can go there repeatedly, and you never know when the next time will be. This is the closest thing to a universal that you’ll find, and maybe it’s my desire for that that makes me like this song so much. It’s a reality that many of us can identify with, even if it’s only in a but-for-the-grace-of-God kind of way.
“Cosmonauts” pairs with “Heavy Balloon.” But this time, it’s a song to a partner about a relationship that gets heavier and harder to break as it goes along. Has a line ever been delivered more passionately than “start it off, NOW”?
“For Her” is said to be a song inspired by the Kavanaugh hearings. The opening sigh and the line “You know, you should know, but you don’t know,” captures it pretty well.
“Drumset” is a song inspired by an incident when Wood removed her drums from Apple’s house to play a gig. But Apple thought she had gotten frustrated and quit the project. It’s the kind of song that reveals how talented she is.
“On I Go,” the album’s closer, was actually the first song written for it. No longer “in a rush to prove,” now, she says “I only move to move.” Most of the songs on “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” are built around indelible lines that bear repeating over and over again. And On I Go takes that style about as far as it can go. To the point of leaving in Apple’s “Aw fuck, shit” exclamation when she flubbed one of the repeats. It would be too easy to read too much into “move to move.” It could mean, I don’t care anymore, or at least not what you think. But I think it’s more than that. The first line is, after all, “On I go, not toward or away” and the key to the kingdom is the nearly hidden line “In the long run, if I get there in time, it could be alright.”
Right now, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is only a digital release. It streams for free with Amazon Prime. Physical product including a double album, CD, and cassette release will be available this summer from the Fiona Apple store.