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Fiona Apple’s new album sounds like 2020 feels

Fetch the Bolt Cutters is the impotent fury of right now in convenient album form.

The cover of Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters Epic Records
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

It’s not unusual for Fiona Apple fans to wait years and years for a new album from the iconoclastic singer-songwriter. The shortest gap between Apple’s record releases was three years, with 1999’s When the Pawn... following her 1996 debut Tidal. Indeed, in the 20 years between When the Pawn... and 2019, she had released just two additional albums.

But now it’s 2020, and Apple has released Fetch the Bolt Cutters, her fifth album and first in eight years, since 2012’s The Idler Wheel... (Apple loves long album titles — hence all the ellipses.) What’s most remarkable is that Bolt Cutters might be Apple’s best release in a 24-year career full of seemingly perfect albums — and that it feels eerily well-timed for an album that was actually recorded between 2015 and 2019 but which sort of feels like Apple maybe just recorded it yesterday.

Bolt Cutters is “about” a great many things (if anyone can claim any Apple album, full of eclectic influences and ideas, to be “about” any handful of things). It tackles women’s rage at the indignities we are forced to suffer under the patriarchy, Apple’s own ambivalence about entering her 40s (except maybe that ambivalence is also fueled by the patriarchy???), and the difficulty of finding lasting love at any age.

But what most resonates throughout Bolt Cutters is the feeling of being trapped somewhere, slowly unraveling, impotently furious about a world that is tearing itself apart without your consent. The album sounds like being in a car where everybody else is only too happy to be speeding toward a cliff. It’s like not being able to sleep because you’re so worried about some indefinable something.

All of which, uh, might sound familiar at the moment.

It’s been a long time since an album arrived with the level of hype Fetch the Bolt Cutters has received

Fiona Apple performs at the Austin Music Awards in 2018.
Gary Miller/Getty Images

Like a stereotypical woman in her 30s, I listen to very little new music. The simple reason is that, at some point in the last few years, I decided I’d had enough new music, thank you very much. But when my friend Hannah urgently sent me an emphatic message saying that I had to listen to Fetch the Bolt Cutters, well, who was I to say no?

Hannah’s urgency was matched by that of seemingly the entire internet. As I write this, the album has been out for a little over 12 hours, but it’s already generated the level of hype that albums rarely receive in the age of streaming, where picking and choosing from artist’s individual single drops carry more weight than any complete album release could. To be sure, some of the hype stems from this being Apple’s first album release in eight years. But just as much comes from how good it is.

Apple’s music has always thrived on the intimacy she fosters with the listener. Every choice she makes is designed to draw you into her world, to make you understand things her way for the length of time you’re listening to her music. Bolt Cutters takes this even further. It was recorded in Apple’s home in Los Angeles, and songs frequently have the barking of dogs faintly (or not so faintly) painting the background of the soundscape. You’re not just making sense of the world through her eyes; you’re sheltering in place with her, looking out the window at a city turned into a ghost town.

The most obvious theme many will draw from Bolt Cutters is its overlap with the rise in women being open about their experiences with sexual harassment and sexual assault in the last several years. The album’s best song, “Under the Table,” frequently turns to Apple snarling, “Kick me under the table all you want/I won’t shut up,” and it’s not hard to extrapolate this into a larger comment on women who feel as though they’ve gone unheard for too long.

Bolt Cutters keeps circling back to the idea of women drawing rage from the world and strength from each other, and their own seemingly inexhaustible stores of resilience. That gives the album the sense of a cohesive, coherent statement on the state of the world today that not only enhances the power of all of its songs in isolation, but it also creates a whole greater than the sum of its already considerable parts.

But to boil Bolt Cutters down to that single idea is to miss the richness of what Apple is trying to do. On the album’s title track, the chorus entirely consists of Apple repeating, “Fetch the bolt cutters, I’ve been in here too long.” In the context of the song, it is a general plea to stop the planet because Apple would like to exit the ride, so exhausted is she by a life filled with the petty cruelties humans inflict on each other. But in the context of a pandemic when none of us can leave our houses, it accidentally becomes so much more relevant than it might have in a timeline where we weren’t all stuck inside. (The album was originally scheduled for release in October before Apple argued to release it right now instead. Perhaps she, too, grasped just how relevant it would be.)

Perhaps Apple’s first major entry into the larger mainstream beyond fans of alternative music came in 1997, when she won an MTV Video Music Award for the now-iconic, very ’90s video for “Criminal” (still her biggest hit). Taking the stage to give a speech, she said, “Everybody that’s watching this world? This world is bullshit.” Her use of the word “bullshit” in a program that children could theoretically be watching got more attention than her ultimate message (which was about staying true to your own inner muse), but in 2020, it’s hard to say she was wrong.

I’m so mad, all of the time, and I no longer precisely know who to be mad at. The sources of the pain so many of my fellow humans are forced to suffer seem at once obvious and older than any of us who are still alive. Nothing makes sense, the world is going through the first act of several dozen post-apocalyptic movies at once, and we live in a country with a leadership that does not seem to care about anything other than consolidating power for itself. We are governed by greedy, gluttonous children who are threatened by the mere suggestion that they might be greedy, gluttonous children, and here I am, stuck inside, with no power to do anything about it. What am I going to do? Vote to incrementally dismantle the entire fucking system?

The world is bullshit. Fetch the bolt cutters. I’ve been in here too long.

Fetch the Bolt Cutters is available on all major music platforms, including Spotify, Apple Music, and Amazon Music. For more of Emily’s thoughts on Fiona Apple’s latest release, listen to the episode of Vox’s Switched on Pop podcast that breaks down the album.

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