Fiona Apple engages our minds like no one else. Like every record before it, her latest album Fetch the Bolt Cutters taps into both the repulsive and the revolutionary. Apple has never been one to deliver approachable melodies or catchy choruses—she repeatedly serves us the abnormal, in all its twisted glory, with minor chords and off-kilter rhythms, often constructed with everyday objects rather than musical instruments. As a woman who lives mostly secluded from society and releases music so rarely, she’s frequently the object of speculation and even sexualization (see: the late ’90s). She doesn’t like to do what is expected of her. She’s said as much.
So it’s funny that Fetch the Bolt Cutters is exactly what so many expected it to be: brilliant. In a surprise to probably no one, Fiona Apple is now five for five. Over the last 25 years, she has made five albums that have all—in due time—ascended to holy text status, even if it took some longer than others to come around to her genius. Her most recent, the staggeringly good The Idler Wheel… arrived in 2012. Before that: Extraordinary Machine, in 2005. But Apple isn’t just sitting on these songs during the long gaps between albums; she’s buffing them to perfection. Fetch the Bolt Cutters is finally here, and it’s another miraculous case of bottled lightning.
Listening to Fiona Apple is often like bearing witness to a prophet speaking in tongues. It can be difficult, at times, to make out what exactly she’s getting at in any given verse, but there’s an overwhelming sensation that what she’s singing is vastly important. In Fetch the Bolt Cutters’ case, these psalms beam clearer than ever before. “Evil is a relay sport when the one who’s burnt turns to pass the torch,” she offers on the characteristically enraged “Relay,” before whisper-singing an anecdote about a ferris wheel that comes across like a sequence from a horror film. In an even more brilliant couplet, she playfully sings, “I would beg to disagree / but begging disagrees with me” before adding, “Kick me under the table all you want / I won’t shut up” on “Under The Table,” a protest of bored, stuffy dinner parties everywhere—and the people who drag you to them: “I told you I didn’t want to go to this dinner / You know that I don’t go for those ones that you bother about,” she sings casually, “So when they say something that makes me start to simmer / That fancy wine won’t put this fire out.”
On the bass-heavy (provided by Sebastian Steinberg, who cultivates ace bass, production and sometimes percussion throughout the record) title track, which benefits even more from Apple’s restless, spoken-word wisecracking, she literally meows before dropping a nod to Kate Bush: “I grew up in the shoes they told me I could fill / Shoes that were not made for running up that hill / And I need to run up that hillI / I will, I will.” Borrowed from a line on British TV show The Fall, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” is this album’s rallying cry, and, as it happens, a clairvoyantly apt one for our isolated moment, too: “Fetch the bolt cutters / I’ve been in here too long,” she sings over and over, like a prisoner who hasn’t seen the light of day for years (or, just like Apple herself, who willingly isolates herself all year long).
You might need to resist the urge to get totally lost in this album’s lyric sheet, because you don’t want to miss a sonic stroke of genius, either. Apple’s devotion to unexpected sounds remains steadfast: Pots (or, maybe baking sheets?) clatter against one another on the title track and the spooky “Newspaper”; cascading piano (one of Apple’s trademarks) takes center stage on “Shameika,” in which she recalls a childhood bully who poked fun at her “potential.” When Apple’s not singing her own backing vocals, or some choir isn’t chanting wildly in the periphery, the role usually goes to a dog (presumably from her own dog, Mercy, a pit bull/boxer mix?). Humans and animals take turns in the spotlight throughout the record while the occasional free-jazz breakdown appears here and there, often giving way to an avant garde-energy that, to a mainstream audience, could only be contemporarily compared to someone like Solange, Kamasi Washington, Thundercat or Fiona Apple herself. On the album opener “I Want You To Love Me,” Apple sings “Time is elastic,” over staccato piano while she describes the kind of love that swallows you whole, akin to the passion she described on “Hot Knife” back in 2012. It’s all frantic and skittering before climaxing in an uncomfortable fit of Apple’s wimpers, forcing us to be beholden to whatever pain or evils she’s emoting so ferally.
Like reading a truly great piece of timely literature for the first time, hearing Fetch the Bolt Cutters is like watching a piece of history unfold. On the complicated yet clearly #MeToo-inspired “For Her,” she manically chants, “Good morning!” before singing, “You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in.” Apple has always known just where to add extra punch to grab attention, but this isn’t for pure shock value: There are a multitude of layers to any one of her expressive fits or sermons.
While these songs ultimately capture not only a decade of Apple’s life, but also American life, they also feel classically timeless. The one that seems to elude era and description the most is “Ladies,” a word which Apple repeats drowsily throughout the song. Apple nearly ushers in a new wave of feminism with this verse alone: “Ruminations on the looming effects of the parallax view / The revolving door which keeps turning out more and more good women like you / Yet another woman to whom I won’t get through.” Another highlight is the brooding “Heavy Balloon,” in which she chants, “I spread like strawberries! / I climb like peas and beans!” like a deranged Joanna Newsom, complementing that line with, “We get dragged down, down to the same spot enough times in a row / The bottom begins to feel like the only safe place that you know.” It sounds like a searing protest slogan, but more than anything, Fiona Apple just sounds fed up with everything. And why shouldn’t she be? Aren’t you?
Apple tackles a similar range of emotions on Fetch the Bolt Cutters that she has dealt with before, but in a new, fiercer way—perhaps just a result of feeling these feelings in a new place and time. What remains the same is this: Fiona Apple can do with a piano, a handful of percussive items and her urgent voice what some could only hope to do with an entire orchestra. Her fifth album would be universally lauded no matter when she chose to release it, but its arrival during spring 2020 feels especially pertinent: It’s the journey inside one isolated woman’s psyche, and, now, we’re all in the same place she is. She closes Fetch the Bolt Cutters with this morbid, yet kinetic line: “On I go, not toward or away / Up until now it was day, next day / Up until now in a rush to prove / Now I only move to move.”
Ellen Johnson is an associate music editor, writer, playlist maker, coffee drinker and pop culture enthusiast at Paste. She occasionally moonlights as a film fan on Letterboxd. You can find her yapping about all the things on Twitter @ellen_a_johnson.