Dear singer-songwriter stuck in Covid-19 lockdown: You can stop believing you’re going to make the defining piece of minimalist art while sitting at home avoiding showers and running lyrics by your cat. Sorry. Fiona Apple beat you to it, which isn’t surprising. It’s not the first time she’s made isolation the new black.
But don’t feel bad. She’s more talented than us, anyway. And she was built for this type of thing.
The timing of Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters–her first record in eight years–may have been coincidental in execution, but certainly not in content–since most of it comes from an empowered woman doing some serious reflecting. It’s a record that gloriously leans female, from the lighthearted to the grimace-inducing.
Apple is smart, funny and fierce. She leaves no doubt as to who’s in charge of every musical meandering, from whimsical to accusatory.
Ever since hitting the mainstream as a 19-year-old in 1996 with Tidal, Apple has been spotty with her music deliveries. Earning her cred riding the mid-’90s wave of female singer-songwriters, she was Billie Eilish before Billie Eilish was Billie Eilish.
Then Apple had the guts to fade away, making musical postcards at her own pace. Like in 1996, her sense of timing is still strong. Fetch the Bolt Cutters at times sounds like Billie Holiday and Tori Amos getting really honest while banging around a fourth-floor apartment with a few musician friends who didn’t bring all their instruments because no one knew an album was going to break out.
Apple’s bare bones yet dynamic piano launches jumpy opener “I Want You to Love Me,” a song she originally debuted around 2013. Apple is still a poet who happens to have a phenomenal singing voice. Any music is just complimentary gravy. The piano returns to corral the chaos in “Shameka,” during which she throws on the brakes, seemingly looks both ways and crosses into a chorus, before starting over. The drums are loosely tight–or tightly loose.
“FTBC” sounds like Apple is doing slam poetry in her kitchen with her dogs and a lot of extra silverware laying around. It takes a bit of an unexpected turn as the band kicks into nice groove. This stops when the dogs get hungry or something. Is there a better reason to stop a song?
But for as light as it sounds at times, Fetch the Bolt Cutters has a point. Like she says in “Under the Table,” “Kick me under the table all you want; I won’t shut up. I won’t shut up.”
Every song is a story with a mood. She’s the narrator who might hold her voice back, chanting her point in “Relay,” listing off resentments before wandering off for a tribal jazz jam because she feels like it. That seems to be the guiding principle.
But when she does unleash that voice, like she does on “Rack of His,” it’s because that’s how the point needs to be made–this time, through love and objectivity seemingly trading punches. Her groove returns filtered through identity questions in the sparsely powerful “Newspaper,” then back to jazz-groove poetry on “Ladies,” maybe the record’s best song, as Apple ruminates on the futility of competing for a man’s love and attention.
The voice comes with a sneer on “Heavy Balloon,” before wandering away and coming back on a short leash; back and forth it goes. Fiona Apple’s points are made with her vocals, of course, and percussion. There’s no heavy guitar presence or shiny production, because it’s not necessary. When music is necessary, there’s rich bass lines and dabbling keys. “Cosmonauts” strays into Tom Waits territory, only with emphatically clean vocals that quiver with intent. However the apartment jam started, this one might wake the neighbors. The beat poetry downshifts into driving darkness on “For Her,” during which Apple accuses someone, “Good mornin’ Good mornin.’ You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in. Good mornin.’ You were so high. You were so high.”
“Drumset” doesn’t get quite as personal, looking at what’s missing when someone left and demanding explanation. The record ends with “On I Go,” a cautious shrug at what happens now. That’s always a great question with Fiona Apple. From quirky to nearly exhausting, Fetch the Bolt Cutters offers the creative honesty at which Apple is genuinely good. Isolation can do that.
Follow music critic Tony Hicks at Twitter.com/TonyBaloney1967.