In 2020, we’ve come to the consensus that the term “indie” has become a hollow, over-utilized expression of anything doused with reverb, loosely DIY, and resembling the jangly guitar-pop of Mac DeMarco. The significance of this seems mundane in broad terms, but when discussing how Fiona Apple has fit into the lexicon of popular music, one has to acknowledge she has defied pigeonholing. It seems as if she would be lazily lumped in with the Julia Holter’s, Joanna Newsom’s, and Weyes Blood’s of the world, as there are experimental and challenging elements in her music making her apt for comparison (especially considering indie tastemakers championed her last record ad nauseam). Still, she has established herself in her own corner as a reclusive singer-songwriter with a nervous perfectionism and conservative output. Even the terminally morose and genre-defying art rockers Radiohead seem to be at odds with being labeled as ‘music for depressed doom and gloom brooders’. If Apple was unconsciously trying to create her own musical language as a frenetic, fragile, hyper-expressive songwriter with her last opus The Idler Wheel, she has all but solidified that aim with stunning precision on Fetch The Bolt Cutters. Its predecessor and spiritual companion found Apple in familiar territory: the emotional space in which we are pleading for love, while also feeling wholly unworthy of receiving. On the restless “Valentine” Apple mused: ‘It's all I'll do 'cause I'm not free / A fugitive too dull to flee / I'm amorous but out of reach / A still life drawing of a peach’. If that didn’t drive the point home, she later laments showing up to a dinner date and seasoning the plate with tears…. Yeah, fun times!
Where we left Apple eight years ago, yearning, incendiary, exposed, and on the brink of emotional collapse, we’ve returned to her in new form. On the stunning opener “I Want You To Love Me,” she’s yet again entangled with a mysterious suitor, somehow perpetually out of reach. The opening chords recall melodies straight out of the Joni Mitchell playbook, propelling the listener through Apple’s most self-assured declarations in recent memory: ‘And I know that you do / In the dark, I know that you do / And I know, that you know / that you got the potential to pick me up.’ Where she was once in a cosmic battle with her own nature, she has now conceded to a willingness to be loved if only this fool would whisk her away. The intro then leads us into the dizzying “Shameika,” an arpeggiated tour-de-force which stands alongside some of her most ambitious accomplishments to date. Apple, in her own words, recalls a young classmate and apparent bully coming to her and providing some much needed confidence boosting after having been rejected by a group of girls at a cafeteria table. It’s a testament to her sensitivity and skill for recollection, integrating the memory into a current reality which feels both relevant and urgent. If she once needed a chaperone, she now is, ‘a good man in a storm / and when the fall is torrential, I'll recall / Shameika said I had potential’. She now defiantly won’t shut up at dinner on “Under The Table,” and by the sounds of it, we certainly do not want her to.
Musically, this album seems to oscillate between dense piano-driven compositions to sparse, percussive pieces emphasizing narrative and layered vocal performances–yet another parallel to her last effort except less varied. The standout “Relay” serves as a meditation on the nature of evil as a transferable phenomenon, and Apple’s realization that if she so chooses to project any hate directed at her, she would endure the hazard of “entering the race.” These economical performances serve as platforms to showcase her most valued, emotionally charged asset: that voice. In the span of a single stretch, Apple has the capacity to shift from a lacerating tone to a honey-soaked whisper and back to a quavering tremble with mind-altering ease. She also has the uncanny ability to make the listener feel as though every vocal performance is the first and only take. If the record suffers from any achilles heel overall, it’s that Apple is so congealed in these musical modes it leaves little room for sonic variation in atmosphere or tonality.
Around 2018 a friend of mine asked, ‘Can you imagine the birth of another band like Deerhunter?’ To which I replied ’not a chance’, signaling the decline of an immense creative thrust in underground rock music. What is easier to imagine, however, is an onslaught of young, blossoming artists coming into contact with this record and seeking to emulate its unsettling tenacity for originality. While genres and micro-movements will come and go, and certain publications will take this opportunity in usual try-hard fashion to manufacture a cultural moment, what Apple has really accomplished is the ability to carve out her own aesthetic through years of sharpening a hot knife. The timing is interesting: here we are, with an inordinate amount of time to examine our lives and place in the world with the conceptual weight of a new decade. What will it look or sound like? Perhaps this record will just be another beloved effort among an established group of adoring Fiona Apple fans. For the rest of us, it’s nothing short of a staggering, refreshing, and singular document of growth from an underappreciated songwriter having met Shameika’s idea of potential. Uncertainty may be the defining characteristic of the new “roaring twenties”, and hell if I’m wrong about what will become of this album, at least we can take some comfort in knowing Fetch The Bolt Cutters already feels like an enduring, if not defining statement.