Pop music critic based in Jakarta
"Fetch the Bolt Cutters" by Fiona Apple (Courtesy of Epic Records/-)
Fiona Apple has a way with words.
In Apple’s 20-plus-year career, the written word has been the New York City-born auteur’s calling card. Her oeuvre has helped inject new, grandiose words into my personal vocabulary: from "discern" (“Slow Like Honey”, 1996) to "desideratum" (“To Your Love”, 1999) and, of course, "stentorian" (“Oh Well”, 2005). The unabridged version of her sophomore release When The Pawn... was for a while the world’s longest album title ever.
Then there’s the voice. Her only Grammy win to date (which should not at all be the case, but I doubt she’s bothered by this) was for her vocal performance, after all. Emerging in the mid-1990s smack dab in the middle of the female singer-songwriter boom, Apple stood out for her ability to throw it down like the best jazz songstress and wail it out rock and roll style. Like Nina Simone before her, "primal" is perhaps the best signifier of its quality.
On her first release in eight years, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, "primal" has indeed become Apple’s full-fledged modus operandi. Although Apple’s voice is long known for being an expressive, multi-dimensional vessel, it has never sounded as unhinged on record as it does here.
It’s right there right off the bat: album opener “I Want You To Love Me” (an Apple-esque statement if there is one) finds her bending scatting, shrieking, scratching and ululating notes in less than four minutes, charting territories typically populated by the Yoko Onos, Meredith Monks and Karen Finleys of the world. This practice would reappear constantly over the album’s next 12 tracks.
Primarily recorded in Apple’s Los Angeles home, it might be tempting to call Cutters a garage pop album. But Apple’s garage is not your average garage. In it, you’re as bound to use a piano as you do a metal butterfly, a water tower or the bone of your deceased dog as an instrument. You also record your songs with your dogs and cats barking and meowing in the background and leave it all intact on the final product, as she does on the title track, to oddly heart-tugging effect. You get the feeling that you’re in her space, in all its simple, ordinary, everyday beauty and wonder.
“Blast the music! Then bang it! Bite it! Bruise it!” she instructs. Yes, ma’am. Will do.
Despite her early brush with fame in the 1990s, Apple has since retreated from the spotlight and developed a reputation as a recluse. Her output is now limited to exactly one album per decade; it would not be surprising at all if the follow-up to Cutters is to arrive in exactly 10 years from now.
Therefore, it makes the most perfect sense that Cutters is released in the thick of a global pandemic. This is an album made at home, to be listened to at home. It begs close listening in a way that would undoubtedly be more challenging to do had the album come out in a so-called normal time.
Only in this manner does everything start to sink in: the stunning breadth of Apple’s words and sounds (she crams in "parallax", "fruit bat" and "mutton-head" in the jazzy, languid “Ladies”, the closest thing on Cutters to the classic Fiona Apple sound) and a litany of thought-provoking feminist manifestos littered throughout the album.
The aforementioned “Ladies” is a call-to-arms to a former flame’s exes, past and future, with one line suggesting said ex’s ex to fetch a dress in Apple’s closet because “I didn't fit in it / It was never mine / It belonged to the ex-wife of another ex of mine”, while “Newspaper” ups the ante by recounting a conversation with the ex of an abusive ex, with Apple sounding genuinely protective of the other woman as she yelps “It's a shame / Because you and I didn't get a witness / We're the only ones who know”.
A couple of tracks later, “For Her” is even more explicit and combative as Apple screams out “Good morning! You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in!” over what sounds like a stick (or the bone of Apple’s deceased dog?) banged against a pail. Meanwhile, “Under The Table” rails against gaslighting and opens with the line “I would beg to disagree / But begging disagrees with me”.
Similarly, “Relay”, addressed to Apple’s rapist when she was aged 12, posits that “Evil is a relay sport / When the one who's burned / Turns to pass the torch” and seethes with possibly her most cutting line yet: “I resent you for presenting your life like a [expletive] propaganda brochure.” She also likens herself to strawberries, peas and beans in the self-deprecating (it wouldn’t be a Fiona Apple album without at least one of these songs) “Heavy Balloon”. I told you she has a way with words.
It’s rather preposterous to call Cutters Apple’s most personal album as it’s often been dubbed — when has a Fiona Apple album not been personal? Upon further inspection, however, personal might just refer to how Cutters finds Apple at a juncture of her personal and professional life wherein she’s fully tapping into her prowess. Whereas her first three outings — all of which are excellent in their own right — were helmed by seasoned male producers and veered on the studio-slick side (Apple once stated that she preferred to leave producing to other people), Cutters is Apple’s second self-produced effort and further proves that aside from writing words, crafting sounds is now her forte too.
“I’m not trying to convince anybody I’m a singer. It just turned out to be another instrument,” Apple said recently.
Cutters demonstrates that if you spend enough time in the comfort of your own solitude and confront past traumas (“Shameika”, for instance, is an ode to one of the few Apple’s middle school peers who was cordial toward her and told her she “had potential”), you too can make magic happen with whatever’s lying around you.
Cutters closes with “On I Go”, probably the aptest soundtrack to the self-isolation age, and serves as a conclusive statement to the title track’s “I’ve been here too long” mantra and “Rack of His”’ "I try to drum / I try to write / I can't do either well / But alright, it's fine, I guess / ‘Cause I know how to spend my time”.
Over handclaps and skeletal drum beats, Apple repeats “On I go / Not toward or away / Up until now it was day, next day / Up until now in a rush to prove / But now I only move to move” over and over again, stumbling mid-song and cursing under her breath before picking things up until the song’s abrupt end.
If Fiona can learn to be gentle with herself, make peace with the pains and pangs of life and (quite literally) march to the beat of her own drum, then so can you. So can all of us. (kes)
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