It is possible to be born too early for the world to develop a language to understand the way that you move, and to be made to feel, throughout your formative years, like the difference between you and everyone else is a crime that warrants punitive action, an errant behavior or belief system you must be made to unlearn. People don’t often interrogate their conditioning. Why would they, when conformity provides structure, when ritual provides order? People fear that which they don’t understand, even when it means them no harm. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” “Klaatu barada nikto.”
Fiona Apple’s “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” is a look back at a life less “ordinary.” In a lilting, conversational tone, Apple spells out what happens when you don’t fit any of the prefab, cookie-cutter images allotted to you growing up: “While I had not yet found my bearings / Those ‘it’ girls hit the ground / Comparing the way I was to the way she was / Saying I’m not stylish enough and I cry too much / And 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 / …But I didn’t know that yet.” The singer-songwriter and classically trained pianist found fame in her teens almost 25 years ago thanks to the moving torch songs and brilliant poetry of her 1996 debut album Tidal and auteur Mark Romanek’s video for “Criminal,” a decadent scene of promiscuous New York City youth only known up until then to those in contact with Upper East and West Side demimondes living it or spectated from the lens of films like Larry Clark’s grubby but not unrealistic cinema verite tragedy Kids.
“Criminal” foisted a lurid image onto Apple that didn’t suit the reality, the way D’angelo’s racy “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” clip made an overnight sex symbol out of a shy church pianist and preacher’s kid. Fiona expressed her displeasure with the machinery of celebrity idolatry on stage at the 1997 MTV VMAs, famously proclaiming “This world is bullshit” while collecting a trophy for Best New Artist. It was a minor scandal, but it cast the artist as difficult for an already-harsh audience of gossip magazines, rock fans, and music critics. In 1999, an otherwise fair Rolling Stone review of Apple’s sophomore album When the Pawn… likened her to Korn and Limp Bizkit, saying the three of them “still haven’t started feeling the most rudimentary pangs of curiosity about life beyond their emotional cocoon.” A Spin profile from 2000 suggested she courts controversy: “Make a high-profile, unconventional decision (during your first interviews, discuss how your song “Sullen Girl” is about being raped at age 12; strip to your underwear and cower in a closet for your video), then be surprised when that action, rather than the exceptional music you create, becomes the focus of discussion.”
After the rocky end of the ‘90s, Apple began to settle into a different groove. She moved to Los Angeles and worked on music as inspiration struck, sometimes not at all. She’s present in every era but not rooted in it. You could see her as the rare ‘90s pop star still harboring the spark that lit the way to fame, or you could see her in an indie rock milieu with songwriter’s songwriters like Aimee Mann, John Darnielle, and Elliott Smith. Or you could treat her as one of a miraculous one. She doesn’t care which viewfinder you use. (“Be kind to me, or treat me mean,” she sang on the title track of 2005’s Extraordinary Machine, “I’ll make the most of it. I’m an extraordinary machine.”) Apple means it; she doesn’t pursue the spotlight or keep dedicated social media accounts, though dispatches appear on the Tumblr page Fiona Apple Rocks. A month ago a video surfaced of her watching the 1950 comedy Born Yesterday, a kind of girl Friday story about a woman being taught etiquette by a suitor, and quietly signing the words, “My record is done.”
Fetch the Bolt Cutters, Fiona Apple’s fifth studio album and her first since 2012’s The Idler Wheel, is free and uncompromising, the kind of art she has been positioning herself to make all along. It’s stark and raw, absent the lush producers’ touches that seat the first two albums in the company of late-’90s indie-pop cognoscenti and the radio-friendly gloss of Extraordinary Machine. Like Idler Wheel, Bolt Cutters lets the singer’s voice and piano run the show, anchored by ramshackle percussion that gives each song the feel of an impromptu living room jam session. Apple can knock out a flawless full-band rocker in her sleep, but Bolt Cutters works with a skeleton crew, letting the cadence of her vocals run rhythm and the musculature of her instruments suffice where thick, pretty embellishments used to. She occupies the space grandly. The fullness of her piano playing is apparent in the first minute. “I Want You to Love Me” lays a skittering top-line melody over long, booming low notes. A sliver of bass guitar — played by Sebastian Steinberg, friend of regular Apple collaborator Jon Brion and an alum of the New York jazz-rock band Soul Coughing — sneaks into the picture without commanding attention. By the end, the song has taken flight as Apple’s piano triples in speed, and her voice zips past the high end of her register into wordless squeals.
Bolt Cutters is volcanic expurgation of the spirit, a dance along the dividing line between joy and pain. “I Want You to Love Me” reaches out to a crush with the all-or-nothing intensity of a declaration of war: “I move with the trees in the breeze / I know that time is elastic / And I know when I go / All my particles disband and disperse / And I’ll be back in the pulse,” all of this to unfurl the titular line as a high stakes proposal. Apple remains a devastating lyricist. “Relay” plucks a line from her diary and expounds on the idea years later: “I resent you for being so sure,” she sings to an unnamed offender, voice shaking with righteous fury, “I resent you presenting your life like a fucking propaganda brochure.” It’s a lesson about marshalling your rage: “Evil is a relay sport when the one who’s burnt turns to pass the torch.” Later on, “Rack of His” turns a mirror on the male gaze: “Check out that rack of his / Look at that row of guitar necks / Lined up like eager fillies, outstretched like legs of Rockettes.” “Newspaper” and “Ladies” wonder why men’s exes are expected to be enemies. “Ladies, ladies, ladies,” the latter exclaims, “Take it easy / When he leaves me, please be my guest / To whatever I might have left in his kitchen cupboards.”
These songs stay playful and buoyant in spite of the weight of their subject matter. Fiona Apple — writer of crushing tunes like “Not About Love” and “Parting Gift,” rotoscopic recreations of moments where internal strife snaps a couple in half — has had a breakthrough. She used to write love songs and sad songs, cycling through yearnings and regrets. The new songs follow through on the line in The Idler Wheel’s “Every Single Night”: “I just want to feel everything.” Fetch the Bolt Cutters supposes life is the summation of the sweets and the bitters and scatters both into the same dish. “Heavy Balloon” is a song not just about depression but the fight to keep it at bay. “Shameika” is a recollection of dull, discouraging school days that fixates not on the heartlessness of bullies but on terse, encouraging words from a stranger. Apple is taking the days in stride now, doing what she wants instead of what is expected of her. The title track puts it succinctly: “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 hill, I need to run up that hill / I will, I will, I will, I will, I will.”