During the season-two finale of British drama The Fall, Gillian Anderson’s sex-crimes investigator realizes a victim could be behind a locked door, and instead of waiting for backup, orders a cop to “Fetch the bolt cutters.” Upon hearing the phrase, Fiona Apple immediately wrote it down. The tool was designed to remove excess metal after fastening objects together; in Apple’s hands, it becomes a fast-track to liberation.
With Fetch The Bolt Cutters, her fifth album and first in eight years, the classically trained pianist finds herself in a dizzying stretch of reclamation. Backed by drummer Amy Aileen Wood, Soul Coughing bassist Sebastian Steinberg, and guitarist Davíd Garza, she uses these 13 songs to embolden women, ridicule abusers, and set herself free from studio constraints. It’s as if by becoming a professional homebody following 2012’s The Idler Wheel..., the 42-year-old Apple obliterated the pressures of outside expectations at large.
Unquestionably, Fetch The Bolt Cutters is Apple’s most intimate album yet (which is really saying something). Scaling back on piano in favor of chant-driven melodies and leaning into live mixing, she rejected traditional studio production on the record, opting instead to control the compositions, recording, and production—what little of it there is—from the comfort of home. Transforming her house into a makeshift bohemian studio, Apple covered windows with tapestries and pushed furniture against the walls to flood the room with instruments: keyboards, upright bass, snares, toms, cymbals, piano, wood blocks, even an engorged timpani. At one point, she used the metal circumference of a miniature trampoline as a percussion instrument while sitting atop it, singing. Without studio trickery, her voice sounds raw and real, morphed by the room’s acoustics. Some tracks sound like unfinished demos—minus the plucked strings, “Rack of His” could be an ardent live recording at a cabaret—which is either a dream come true for fans of the “leaked” Jon Brion mix of Extraordinary Machine or a potential turnoff for those who loved When The Pawn…’s studio perfectionism.
“We played the way kids play or the way birds sing,” bassist Steinberg told The New Yorker. He wasn’t romanticizing it: Fetch The Bolt Cutters is full of visceral, jittery, wonderfully imperfect performances that make the album feel like a dreamlike concert at Largo. “Shameka” is some Franz Liszt cacophony with a vaudevillian chorus, and “I Want You To Love Me” is a whimsical romp through pastoral swells. Then there’s the album’s climax, “Cosmonauts,” which sounds like friends toying around and falling into a hypnotic rhythm-turned-cathartic breakdown. It concludes with an unbridled scream and Apple whispering hums, as if lulling herself out of a night terror.
Apple famously labeled the world “bullshit” during her 1997 VMAs acceptance speech for Best New Artist. As of last year, she was still calling bullshit, and she’s got the receipts to prove it: developing OCD as a child, raped by a stranger in her home’s stairwell at age 12, struggling to control her subsequent depression and anxiety as a teen, and suffering through traumatic relationships in adulthood. But with the swiftness of a graffiti artist marking blame on a billboard at night, Apple uses Fetch The Bolt Cutters to not just call abusers out, but attempt to hold them accountable. She outlines the life and possible sympathies of a coke-sniffing, abusive, cheating husband on “For Her,” only to scald him with a concluding reminder: “Good mornin’, good mornin’ / You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in.” Later, Apple recreates the modern serial-rapist narrative with “Newspaper,” a stripped-down number about a woman feeling connected to a stranger who was abused by the same man she was, with backup vocal harmonies by her sister. Elsewhere, on “Heavy Balloon,” she reminds trauma victims how therapeutic it is to share their stories and rightfully take up space, hollering so loudly at one point that the microphone pops. Old hits like “Criminal” and “Sleep To Dream” vilified lewd men, of course, but here she’s turning adamant observations into call-to-action efforts that feel more overt than before.
Apple has always fought for what she believes in, despite the labels that consequently clung like magnets: “uncompromising,” “crazy,” “difficult.” By now, it’s cliched enough to mock; in “Under The Table,” a tongue-in-cheek dinner party conversation, she declares chipperly, “Kick me under the table all you want / I won’t shut up!” Fetch The Bolt Cutters is the artist looking into the future and stating, not asking for, her demands. She released the record in April instead of October as suggested. She created the album art by hand. She even retained the background noise like laundry machine whirrs and the barking of her pit bull-boxer mix, Mercy. But more than that, this album is Apple sounding assured with where she’s at in life and wishing the same for anyone holding similarly toxic cards.