Fiona Apple – Fetch The Bolt Cutters

25 Apr

It has been a long time since we’ve seen an album release like Fetch The Bolt Cutters. Acclaim this universal comes by only about once a decade. The combination of storytelling and challenging, clever music is powerful and the album is unquestionably brilliant, but it lands just a little short of being a full fledged masterpiece for me.

Firstly, this is an album that rewards attention, even if it doesn’t do that much to force it upon itself. It’s a largely understated album but right underneath the surface are all kinds of interesting currents. It’s heavily layered, but delicately so. Despite all of the flirtations with noise pop, the album only rarely pushes at you. It’s content to just be itself. Should you spend the effort to focus on it then it is generous with its rewards, but should you not, it’s not going to make the first move.

For instance, in the excellent title track, there are beautiful little musical sparkles running below her already muted voice and percussion. You can spend the whole song chasing any one of them happily and then come back to do it again with a completely different strain. Small touches like the chimes and the barking dogs at the end substantially elevate the song as a whole. A trend through the album is ˙letting each song fade with the band noodling and Apple vocalizing and this both highlights and expands the music. They like messing with noise here, but instead of the tortured guitars of 90s alternative, this is gentle, gossamer noise. It’s the sound between radio stations at night. Instead of breaking the song down, it builds upon the foundation that it set.

“Fetch The Bolt Cutters” also has fantastic storytelling and sharp lines through it. “And you maim when you’re on offense / But you kill when you’re on defense” is a great couplet. The quiet, but determined, music works excellently against the dark humanity of the lyrics. It finds exactly the right tone to communicate a very specific feeling, that of understanding that it’s time to cut the links with a person. This is a very understated song in an already understated album and quietly one of the best in here.

The writing here can often be excellent. The album is exceptionally coherent and so the storytelling comes through strong. “Rack of His” is a clever and honest song built around a sublime pun and ”Newspaper” is sharp story. “I wonder what lies he’s telling you about me / To make sure that we’ll never be friends” is lean and yet complete. There’s nothing more that needs to be said after a line like that. On top of that, the music is inventive and unexpected. It’s pinned well by the percussion, but it’s very pleasingly jagged. It’s never quite where you expect it to be.

The album then takes a turn for the softer with “Ladies.” It’s softer and simpler than the rest of the album, but it makes for a lovely break because it’s a lovely song. She’s able to belt out vocals when she needs to and the bravery of the repeated “ladies” in the song is amazing to see. Also, having the song be a plea for cooperation and then ending it with the garbled, mumbled refrain of “Yet another woman to whom I won’t get through” is a body blow.

Unfortunately, from here we get to much of my issue with the album. “Heavy Balloon” is just too simple a song, especially right after “Ladies.” The blues in it should work well, but it just compounds the problem. The metaphor here is too weak to carry the song and so the whole song breaks down. It’s almost rescued by the instrumental ending. Deemphasizing the lyrics allows the music to really speak and it’s foot-stomping fun. The ending is one of the best parts of the album, but the core of the song is just too weak. Similarly, the following song “Cosmonauts” is great to listen to, especially once it takes off and just goes hard into the chant. However, the core simile, though clever at first glance, is just nonsense.

This problem is even worse with a few of the opening songs. “Shameika” has a kindergartner stomping around in it. It’s a heavy pace that’s childish and fun and the Alice-down-the-rabbithole bridge is excellent. However, the bullying just doesn’t have any heft to it. There’s too much comfort in the song. Similarly, “Relay” has a catchy chorus that’s anthemic, which is amazing given the meaning in it. That Apple wrote it at fifteen should be amazing, but the couplet of “Evil is a relay sport / where the one who’s burnt turns to pass the torch” sounds like it was written by a fifteen-year old and that takes a lot away from the song. It’s just too naive for me.

This is still all strong music though. “Under The Table” is too privileged in its politics for me, but the music is incredible. The couplet of “I would beg to disagree / But begging disagrees with me” is too wealthy a couplet for my taste with the dinner parties that it evokes, but the song fades it repeatedly into the background near the end and that’s excellent. Also, when she sings “I’d like to buy you a pair of pillow-soled hiking boots / to help you with your climb / Or rather, to help the bodies that you step over along your route / So they won’t hurt like mine”, the lyrics finally match the cleverness of the music and it’s sublime. I just wish that the album was more able to consistently line the two sides up. The songs with the best music tend to weak lyrics and those with the sharpest lyrics have music that, while extremely good, is not quite as great as the best here and the result is that there’s no single here that sticks with me.

These flaws are the exception, not the rule though. This is a stellar album. The opener “I Want You To Love Me” has a nice, arboreal sound to it. It’s a country song, but the country is a woodland. “For Her” places a nice summer pop sound against harsh lyrics, including the memorable “Well, good morning / Good morning / You raped me in the bed your daughter was born in.” That’s the kind of thing that wakes you right up. “Drumset” is the same kind of brutal in the lyrics, but manages to be healing nonetheless. Finally, the closer “On I Go” is a very intelligent set of variations on a repeated chorus that gives the album a good, open-ended sound. It leaves you with the feeling that the album hasn’t ended, it has just left space for you to fill in with your life.

This is an exceptional album all told. This is some of the best music that I’ve heard in a long while. There are enough issues here to hold it back from being a true masterpiece, but it’s still an astonishing accomplishment. This is the best album of Fiona Apple’s career and a highlight of the year. You should definitely check it out.

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