When Emily Nussbaum’s superlative profile of Fiona Apple appeared in The New Yorker in March of 2020, a lot of attention was centered on a downright shocking line, included in the song “For Her” off of Apple‘s fifth full-length, Fetch the Bolt Cutters. “Well, good morning / Good morning / You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in.” On record, the lyric is nearly screamed, Apple’s voice sizzling with rare, powerful fury.
It’s a startling thing to hear, especially in the context of a song that begins as a multi-tracked cheerleader routine, all rapid rhyming words and clapping percussion. We hear a tale of a woman upset with her partner’s behavior, noting that “Maybe she got tired of watching him / Sniff white off a starlet’s breast”, heavily implying this is a man in the media and one who has gotten away with far worse for far, far too long. This is not Apple’s tale to tell, but that of another woman who has suffered and may continue to suffer under the shadow of a tasteless, feckless partner.
What makes Fetch the Bolt Cutters such an extraordinary, surprising, and downright essential record is how it isn’t about Apple so much as it’s about other women: their friendships, their hangups, and the relationships they end up trapped in, mixed with Apple’s pathos and gravity. It is a thundering, angry, and pointed album that feels liberated by the fact that the target of her wit and barbs isn’t mainly herself or her lingering insecurities, no. This time around, she sets aim at the men who have never had to face any consequences for their actions — and then proceeds to go for the jugular.
This subtle change of lyrical direction isn’t wholly unexpected, as Apple’s songs have increasingly spun away from private critiques and pained introversion into broader subjects, even if those subjects all appear to be part of a small social circle. The woman who once sang “Don’t be down, my demeanor tends to disappoint / It’s hard enough even trying to be civil to myself” on 1999’s When the Pawn… was almost completely dissipated by the time we heard from her in 2012, where she scoffed at those on the periphery, cooly noting that “they throw good parties there”.
Now, she looks to others who are lost and trapped in impossible situations, feeling a kinship in their struggles, having suffered enough on her own. On “Newspaper”, Bolt Cutter‘s damning centerpiece, Apple writes about a woman caught in a relationship with a man whom she used to be with and therefore knows just how dangerous he is. “I grew concerned when I saw him start to covet you / When I learned what he did, I felt close to you,” she sings over rattling drums and a cooed vocal loop. “In my own way, I fell in love with you,” she adds, unable to not get caught up in the situation.
She draws close to this other woman and wants to protect her (“I watched him let go of your hand / I want to stand between you”), while also realizing why she may never get the chance (“I wonder what lies he tells you about me / To make sure that we’ll never be friends”). It is an imagined kinship built out of horror, a foxhole sisterhood, and yet despite all of these intentions, this man’s toxic behavior will continue to cycle through, chewing women up and spitting them out, as it has for years, decades, centuries. If there’s a disgusted tone to Apple’s vocal takes, it’s because she realizes she may not be able to fix the situation — and maybe no one can. One track later, on “Ladies”, she laments that there is “yet another woman to whom I won’t get through”.
Bolt Cutters expands the homespun and tightly-wound sound of 2012’s The Idler Wheel… to even further extremes. It clambers and tumbles through its angled and angry tales, with drums and percussion (largely played by band member Amy Aileen Wood) dominating every track, sometimes pairing up with Apple’s voice at the expense of more familiar instruments like guitars and pianos. That isn’t to say the piano isn’t used here. Opening tracks, “I Want You to Love Me” and “Shameka”, build off each other’s ivory melodies quite succinctly. But Apple’s interest in percussion dominates the record, which given the level of measured vitriol present, feels wholly appropriate.
While Apple admits in that New Yorker piece how the #MeToo movement very much inspired the album (even joking how a sketch of Harvey Weinstein with his walker would make an excellent album cover), Bolt Cutters‘ focus isn’t singular towards one movement or goal. Her songs cover bitterness and microaggressions, egotistical men and fetishizing musicians all the same. On the wry and cruelly funny “Under the Table”, she discusses that awkward feeling of going to a party on your partner’s behest and them trying to control what you do or say around their peers:
“I told you I didn’t want to go to this dinner
You know I don’t go with those ones that you bother about
So when they say something that makes me start to simmer
That fancy wine won’t put this fire out
Kick me under the table all you want
I won’t shut up
I won’t shut up”
These aren’t grand gestures she’s talking about so much as casual denials, refusing to allow men to put her in unwarranted situations. Bolt Cutters is the sound of Apple reclaiming her voice, taking control, and even having fun with this newfound confidence. She spins the male gaze around on “Rack of His” by asking you to “Check out that rack of his / Look at that row of guitar necks”, noting that for this courtship, it is she who is the pursuer. It’s certainly cheeky, especially when she opens the song by saying, “I give you pictures and cards on non-holidays / And it wasn’t because I was bored”, all laid out over cold and occasional vibraphones. There is a lot of empty space between drum hits on Bolt Cutters, but that space is often filled with Apple’s voice, itself often stacked on top of itself several dozen times over. It is sometimes a choir, and sometimes this choir all whispers in unison.
The subject matter at hand is heavy and present in our own day-to-day lives, but that’s not to say that Bolt Cutters is without whimsy. Apple indulges in lighter musical fare as the mood calls for it, playing around with those vibra-jazz tropes on the title track and even capturing the laid-back sound of early 2000s Shelby Lynne on the breezy groove of “Ladies”. As the songs soften musically, so does Apple’s stern mask that was present on the record’s first half. On “Heavy Balloon”, she takes no qualms in talking about her struggle with depression:
“People like us get so heavy and so lost sometimes
So lost and so heavy that the bottom is the only place we can find
You get dragged down, down to the same spot enough times in a row
The bottom feels like the only safe place that you know.”
The title of the record was derived from a line said by Gillian Anderson’s sex-crimes detective from the gloomy police proceduralThe Fall, wherein she’s trying to free a girl who’s been horrifically abused. While safety comes up quite a bit on this record, its context varies. Sometimes it’s her fear of others about to recreate her past traumas unwittingly. Then on “Cosmonauts”, the stakes are lower but still deeply felt, as she loses her safety knowing well that a relationship is going to end, noting that “There’s no time to interrupt the detonation / Be good to me before you’re gone.” By the end of the song, her own identity is caught up in the identity of the relationship, exclaiming that “When you resist me, hon / I cease to exist because / I only like the way I look when lookin’ through your eyes.” By the time we reach the final song of the album “On I Go”, she unearths deeper truths about her emotional state, admitting that “Now I only move to move.”
“I have a temper,” she told Nussbaum several months before the release of Fetch the Bold Cutters. “I have lots of rage inside. I have lots of sadness inside of me. And I really, really, really can’t stand assholes. If I’m in front of one, and I happen to be in a public place, and I lose my shit — and that’s a possibility — that’s not going to be any good to me, but I won’t be able to help it, because I’ll want to defend myself.” Bolt Cutters isn’t her defense, her polemic, nor her confession. Bolt Cutters is her pummeling focus on the ills of the world: both the big ones we see on TV and the ones we see in our close friends. Bolt Cutters would be praised for its rawness and its bloodletting were it not for the fact that it is also charming, so considered, and so unapologetic for being the rattling, risqué record that it is. It’s bold, it’s demanding, and it might very well go down as the finest full-length Fiona Apple has ever made.