A wacky assemblage of a roaring growl, a sultry cabaret show, a vaudevillian cry, braggadocio swagger, numerous dog barks, chanting militant cries, teasing wordplay, and lots of percussion—unlikely partners—cross paths in a house on Venice beach. It might take less time to say what Fiona Apple’s homemade album isn’t than what it is. The tide of tone often changes within the same breath. Pulling together ladies in true Beyoncé fashion, averting expectations like Joni Mitchell, using lines from a Kate Bush song, a British police procedural, The Fall, and a children’s gardening book, Apple allows life to be her muse. The chaos of this album finds anchorage by everything that is Fiona—longing for women, unconditional love for dogs, weariness towards a patriarchal society, radical authenticity, unadulterated sensitivity. She defiantly throws a middle finger to tradition, the chorus-verse-chorus blueprint, and your expectations as she writhes through the twisted labyrinth of her life.
Apple’s bandmate, David Garza, says that Apple was looking to create her album “from the ground up…For her, the ground is rhythm.” What’s this rhythm made up of? The name of the game is percussion. Apple’s home recording studio is littered with percussive instruments like cymbals, bells, drums, and metal squares. Starting the album meant Apple bounced around her home making noises with various things on various surfaces. The ones that made her groove got recorded while she tossed the rest. The result is an album which has an undercurrent of a raw, homemade pulse. This stems from Apple’s need to create something entirely her own. She’s a big critic of relying on outside influences over inward reflection for artistic fodder–in a 1998 interview, she revealed that she asks the staff at each hotel she stays at to remove the TV’s and, these days, she doesn’t listen to modern music at all. She displays her disregard for cookie-cutter music by introducing an untamed, unfiltered rhythm. Sometimes Apple juxtaposes percussive instruments with her voice carrying a soothing melody while simultaneously proving her piano professor status, and sometimes Apple leans into the dirtiness of percussion by growling a chant over the clatter–creating a noise you can march to. But, no matter what, the percussive current persists.
When the music industry found the sweet and smoky-voiced prodigy in the late 90’s, the male-dominated music industry wasn’t quite ready for her. She told the crowd of 1997’s MTV Music Awards that “the world is bullshit” before politics propelled Americans into an age of disillusionment. She wasn’t shy about letting people know she suffers from anxiety, depression, and obsessive compulsive disorder before slogans like “mental health is wealth” entered public consciousness. She spoke candidly about being raped as a twelve year-old before Twitter was even around to get #MeToo trending. Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker describes Apple’s early public image as “a bruised prodigy to be both ogled and pitied.” Apple quickly learned to be weary of her fame, and these days she hardly ever leaves home. But she’s never quieted her voice. She echoes this sentiment on the track “Under the Table,” singing, “Kick me under the table all you want / I won’t shut up.” Apple tells Vulture about the night that provoked the incensed track explaining, “This was inspired by a particular dinner where there was lots of expensive wine and lots of bragging about things I wouldn’t brag about…somebody said something I thought was offensive. It was not the kind of dinner where you’re supposed to call somebody out. But I didn’t want to be there in the first place. So I called the guy out.” Apple knows no other way to communicate than with full transparency, and the world is just getting around to listening. Pitchfork tossed Apple their first 10/10 review in a decade, and there’s already whispers of 2021 Grammy nominations for Fetch the Bolt Cutters. With ears peeled, all that’s left is to acknowledge just what Apple is telling us with her honey-husky voice.
Ladies, ladies, ladies, ladies is all Apple seems to be interested in at the moment. She’s been traumatized by men since age twelve when she was raped, and toxic masculinity has haunted her ever since. She’s sat through a dinner with Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson boasting about their genius, a party in which Johnny Depp pushed her and her friend into a room, and she recently broke up with her last boyfriend. Apple says in an interview, “I don’t feel very romantic these days.” But she’s here for the ladies. It’s been a rocky road to get to this point. She explains that her complicated feelings towards women are rooted in the girls who bullied her in middle school. She writes about a girl who told her she “had potential” after being laughed at by a vicious clique. Apple underscores her need for women’s approval by using tempo to her advantage. “Shameika” sounds frantic during its verses; Apple’s piano seems to be running as she doubles down on tension until the chorus ushers in relief. All instruments are silenced for Apple to remind herself “Shameika said I had potential” over and over again before the next verse brings back the anxiety of self doubt. She’s been the other woman in a relationship and admits that she has more guy friends than girlfriends, but Apple aches for those women who she might’ve once thought of as competitors. In “Ladies” she offers an olive branch to her ex’s new lover as she playfully sings, “There’s a dress in the closet, don’t get rid of it, you’d look good in it.” “For Her” portrays the rape scene of a friend of Apple’s. At first listen, this track seems like two different songs. Something you might sing playing double Dutch suddenly holds its breath for Apple to belt out “Well, good morning, good morning / You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in.” Apple has never been known to circumvent tragedy in the name of comfort. Instead, she elects to linger in the treachery and despair of it all, and finds new resilience in traumatized women like herself. Ann Cvetkovich touches on the communities that rise up from the ashes writing in her book, Depression: A Public Feeling: “Depression can take antisocial forms such as withdrawal or inertia, but it can also create new forms of sociality…it serves as the foundation for new kinds of attachment or affiliation.” With age, Apple realizes the ladies aren’t the enemy. It’s the patriarchy.
Apple’s album opens with the line, “I’ve waited for years.” No one understands this sentiment more than fans who waited eight years for Apple’s latest release. The creation of Fetch the Bolt Cutters resulted from an arduous process of self-inspection. The artist doesn’t crank music out like her contemporaries; her creative process requires grappling with self-doubt and looking into the depths of her psyche. She defends the scarring process saying, “If you’re making a song, and you’re making music and there’s going to be passion in it and there’s going to be anger in it. You have to get to the myelin sheath—you know, to the central nervous system—for it to be good, I feel like. And if that’s not true? Then fuck me, I wasted my fucking life and ruined everything.”
I, for one, do not think that Apple wasted her fucking life. She confronts her shadow self and enraptures her audience in the naked truth of it all. The oldest line from her album, “Evil is a relay sport / When the one who’s burnt turns to pass the torch,” was scribbled by a fifteen year-old Apple. It’s no surprise that Apple features this in her album 28 years later. She discovered the contagion of trauma too early, particularly that which is left without acknowledgement. The way hurt festers and oozes onto the innocents around you. It subverts logic, clouds the humdrum of everyday life, and, sometimes, it points you towards the community you needed all along. Apple packages all this messiness into Fetch the Bolt Cutters. With each track, she proceeds to painstakingly wrestle with the chains imposed upon her. She finishes the album with, “now I only move to move,” and you know with satisfaction that restraints could never hold a candle to the bolt cutter that is Fiona Apple.
This piece is part of the on-going series “The Social and Political Commentary of Music Reviews,” which is part of an Alternative Journalism course at Tulane University taught by Dr. Christine Capetola.