ALBUM REVIEW: Fiona Apple’s ‘Fetch The Bolt Cutters’ is Infinite

The songwriter laureate’s fifth record is a stewing masterpiece, brewed of raw honesty and imperfection.

At the very beginning of the season two finale of Allan Cubitt’s British crime drama, The Fall, Gillian Anderson’s hard-boiled detective drives up to an abandoned building deep in the hills of Belfast to hunt for a hostage. Upon arriving at the scene, she brushes off an officer’s recommendation to wait for backup. Unfazed by the building’s door being padlocked shut, she cooly beckons to him: “fetch the bolt cutters.”

To say that Fiona Apple’s fifth album, titled after this phrase, sounds like a locked door being opened is an understatement. Fetch The Bolt Cutters is the sound of a door being blown off its hinges with TNT. It is a staggering artistic feat, made by a singular artist whose career has been defined by these massive leaps and bounds. Fetch The Bolt Cutters is Apple’s boldest album yet, building on the artistry, lyricism and raw brilliance of her previous works to create something wholly unprecedented and utterly unstoppable.

Throughout the album, you can feel these little artistic cues from past iterations of Apple’s music, and hearing them fully realized here is incredible. Fetch The Bolt Cutters carries the colossal eloquence and passion of Tidal, but that rage — channeled directly into the same patriarchal world that had long demonized her for daring to be outspoken about her womanhood — feels more striking than anything she’s ever done before. On one of the starkest songs here, the metamorphosing “For Her,” she snarls “you raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in,” and the words hit with the visceral impact of a cannonball to the gut.

Lyricism has always been one of Apple’s most undeniable strengths, but it’s hard to overstate how brilliantly written Fetch The Bolt Cutters is. It harnesses the metaphor and literary intricacy of a record like When The Pawn…, but it’s been honed to a razor-sharp point that cuts to the bone. The album’s opening track, “I Want You To Love Me,” stands as maybe the most essential example of Apple’s widened lyrical horizon, probing her material existence and meditating on time, mortality and the driving, primordial desire to be loved in a way that she simply hasn’t done before. Her impassioned vocal performance extends the elemental nature of this song to it’s most avant-garde inclinations, belting here and warping her voice into a squeaking trill that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Meredith Monk’s Dolmen Music there.

Apple’s voice is an uncanny, remarkable instrument all on its own. And while there are no high-wire vocal trapeze acts here like “Hot Knife” from 2012’s The Idler Wheel… (though the marvelous, lilting “Cosmonauts” comes closest), Apple’s distinctly resonant alto adds a marvelous immediacy to her lyrics. There’s the defiance of “Under The Table,” where she mines her upper register, snarkily dressing-down a lover for daring to shush her with the fury of a woman who’s been told to shut up a thousand times before. On the delightfully subversive “Rack of His,” a biting swipe at the male gaze, her voice jumps back and forth between an enraged growl and a sarcastic, mocking coo, bouncing over the plodding arrangements with ease.

Elsewhere, Apple puts on an unforgettable, cabaret-like performance on the woozy “Ladies,” a drifting, conversational gem on how patriarchal standards serve to pit women against one another. As an electric piano waltzes back and forth with the drums, Apple pulls together a grand analysis of the perspectives of womanhood by way of a beautifully cascading, syncopated string of lyrics, pitter-pattering off each-other:

“Ruminations on the looming effect, and the parralax view, and the figure, and the form, and the revolving door that keeps turning out more and more good women like you”

Like this sequence of words, Fetch The Bolt Cutters is a remarkably percussive affair, where the rhythmic core of these songs is as integral to the album as Apple’s voice is. On the immediately stupefying “Shameika,” a chronicle of her formative years in middle school, she helms a spiraling piano line to some of the most immediately punchy percussion here. The song is a brilliantly organized whirlwind of chaos, jumping back and forth from middle school bullies to positive self talk, only gathering itself for those five words, which Apple reads to herself like a mantra: “Shamieka said I had potential.” It’s “pissed off, funny, and warm,” a riotous barn-burner that channels the frustration of Apple’s youth into something truly exuberant.

Apple probes a darker part of her childhood on “Relay,” a song written partially as a 15-year old and finished during the 2018 Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. After sprinting through the “evil is a relay sport…” refrain, written by Apple to reflect the trauma she had to internalize after her sexual assault at the age of 12, it’s notable that the song turns on a dime, shifting into a clattering, militant stomp that exudes unrestrained fury with every strike. Apple unloads her resentment at her assaulter, at Brett Kavanaugh, at the music press that painted her into corner, at a world that enabled evil to burn her and other women without consequence. Few lines get to the heart of her disdain for an industry that tried to chew her up and spit her out better than “I resent you presenting your life like a fucking propoganda brochure.” It’s maybe the purest expression of rage here, a cleansing fire that seems to swallow everything in its path, leaving only Apple’s fragile vocalizations in its wake.

It makes sense then, that the most cathartic moment here feels like it’s practically rising out of the ashes.

Apple has constantly interrogated her youth in her music, all the way back to songs like 1996’s “Sullen Girl,” but Fetch The Bolt Cutters feels more open than anything she’s done before, word-drunk and earnest about her insecurities and desires in a way that allows her prose to flow more freely than it ever has before. The phenomenal artistic maturity and control exercised in the studio carries over to her pen, and the result is a title track that might just be the greatest song she’s ever written.

“Fetch The Bolt Cutters” spills from all sides with sincerity, whether Apple is talking about toxic friendships, confessing her internalizing of rejection from “the cool kids” and “it girls” of her youth, opening up about her emotional insecurities, or finding solace in the words of Kate Bush. At the spiritual center of the song is a simple refrain, “Fetch the bolt cutters, I’ve been in here too long,” which Apple wields to spellbinding effect. It’s radical, and the understated backing — an ebbing, flowing percussive core that clanks, rattles, and crashes at all the right places, anchored by a gentle vibraphone melody — feels captivatingly revolutionary in its subtle churn.

As Apple and backing vocalist Cara Delevingne play around with the hook while the song rounds out its final minute, the pair’s dogs — Mercy, Maddie, Little, Leo, and Alfie — begin to bark and yelp, gradually enveloping the song in excited howls as the percussion bows out and the vibraphone hangs in air. It’s striking upon first listen, but the spontaneity and incongruity of it all just feels real, profoundly satisfying in a way I can’t describe. On an album that embraces imperfection with open arms, it truly feels perfect.

Score: 🔩🔩🔩🔩🔩/5