Throw Away the Key And ‘Fetch the Bolt Cutters’, Instead
Released in April, Fiona Apple’s new album Fetch the Bolt Cutters was a long-awaited tour de force. For nearly eight years, the brilliant mind behind Tidal had been silent. But as we listen to the most recent fruit of her labors, that silence feels more like the necessary gathering of breath before a battle cry, rather than the closing of one’s mouth altogether. Five months later, in our present moment of turmoil, I’ve decided to revisit the album, both for strength and for solace. Fetch the Bolt Cutters is about snapping off locks, bending bars, throwing open shuttered windows. It is a breath of fresh air after a long imprisonment. An album about freedom might feel odd when we’re still confined to our homes, but Apple assures us that liberatory work can take place without having to go anywhere.
The album’s title comes from a series called The Fall starring Gillian Anderson. There’s a scene (https://youtu.be/eKhMgNUUQw0) in which Anderson’s detective finds a missing girl; standing in front of a chain-link fence, putting on gloves with businesslike haste, Anderson says, “Fetch the bolt cutters.” It isn’t a particularly revelatory moment. In fact, Apple said as much herself in an NPR interview (https://www.npr.org/2020/04/22/841401198/fetch-your-tool-of-liberation-fiona-apple-on-setting-herself-free): “It’s just a throwaway little line.” But there’s something about Anderson’s delivery—perhaps her self-possessed composure—that is striking. You can tell from her tone that she means business, that one way or another, freedom is coming.
In line with that, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is about femininity, pain, loss, and self-discovery. It is unflinching in its exploration of difficult themes with all the determined precision of a surgeon digging in an open wound. It has thirteen tracks, each one a symphony unto itself, covering everything from Apple’s craving to be seen and desired (“I Want You to Love Me”) to the pain she feels at watching an abusive former partner hurt yet another woman (“Newspaper”). The album earned a highly unusual perfect score from Pitchfork (https://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/fiona-apple-fetch-the-bolt-cutters/ ), and it isn’t hard to see why. This is authentic, genuine, achingly human music from a woman who has spent much of her time in the industry being told to be a little less honest. Her best-known hit “Criminal” that she composed at age sixteen is wonderful—throaty and alluring and coy—but it’s also artificial, clearly conforming to pressure to be sexy—and not much else—from industry executives (https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2015/07/90367/fiona-apple-criminal-feminist-anthem ). Fetch the Bolt Cutters is nothing like that, and that’s a good thing.
The gloves are off, the chains have snapped, and Apple holds nothing back. They aren’t necessarily all sad songs, but they’re certainly all honest in their own way. My personal favorite is “Shameika,” not least because of Apple’s incredible work on the piano. The melody is absolutely infectious, at once sweet and yet almost discordant, a complex medley of notes. In many ways, it’s deceptively simple: a song about Apple’s middle school classmate, the titular Shameika, and a contemplation by a now-confident woman about what it was like when she wasn’t strong enough to weather the storm. She recalls that “Shameika said I had potential.” And that’s all she needed—someone on her side to remind her that she shouldn’t lose herself. “Shameika wasn’t gentle, and she wasn’t my friend / But she got through to me / And I’ll never see her again,” Apple says. It’s a microcosm of what Apple is trying to convey with the entire album. She’s imploring her audience to realize that they cannot afford to be anything less than the most authentic, uncompromising version of themselves.
And for women, this is often an impossible task. There’s a constant barrage of messages insisting that we box ourselves up, that we make ourselves neat and tidy. “Shameika” and Fetch the Bolt Cutters as a whole are a refutation of the idea of a “manageable” woman. Rebecca Solnit wrote that to be a woman is to exist in a perpetual state of wrongness; Apple has made a paean to wrongness, to too-much-ness, to women who overwhelm like tsunamis and avalanches and wildfires.
Apple has more to say on the topic of control in “Under the Table.” It’s Apple quite literally refusing to be silenced. She’s defiant and self-assured: “Kick me under the table all you want / I won’t shut up, I won’t shut up.” Apple revealed to NPR that the song is about a real dinner she’d been dragged to with music executives, and after an evening of being baited, she got tired of keeping her mouth shut (https://www.npr.org/2020/04/22/841401198/fetch-your-tool-of-liberation-fiona-apple-on-setting-herself-free ). It is not hard to believe that a woman like Apple has been pushed around more than she deserves in the music industry, but “Under the Table”—and indeed, this entire album, which was an immediate success with hardly any promotion necessary—is a declaration that she’s done with all of that. She’s just here to make art, and to do it well, and she won’t be told what she can and cannot do. The time for polite, palatable acquiescence has long passed for Apple, like it has for most women.
Fetch the Bolt Cutters is not an entirely perfect album, but that is, in fact, what makes it so brilliant. There were still things that bothered me, especially after having so much time to reflect on it, like the tracks that end in breathy, high-pitched noises akin to a particularly confusing interpretive dance performance that makes you feel like you’re on the outside of a joke you might not be cultured enough to understand. But I have a feeling that Apple doesn’t actually care if I like her music that much, and that’s what makes me like it all the more, even the stranger bits.
Fetch the Bolt Cutters is a manifesto against perfection, against artifice, against manicured pop tracks that dully express ersatz pain or longing caged in a glossy prison of marketing. In “Relay,” Apple roars “I resent you for presenting your life like a fucking propagandra brochure,” and she certainly means it. This album is not a perfectly produced hit for the summer, polished to a manufactured sheen. It’s like a peek into Apple’s diary, pulled together from all the realest, rawest bits of her, made in the house she rarely leaves with the help of her dogs and with her sister’s voice and the legs of her kitchen chairs as a backing track (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/03/23/fiona-apples-art-of-radical-sensitivity ). Fiona Apple does not care what her audience thinks of her; she’s just saying what she feels is important after decades of being muzzled, and she isn’t going to stop, whether or not anyone feels like listening.
So it isn’t perfection. It is, however, quite possibly her very best work. And that’s more than good enough for me. Fetch your headphones, your Bluetooth speaker, your aux cord, and most importantly, fetch your bolt cutters. There’s work to be done.