The world wasn't totally prepared for Fiona Apple in the late 1990s. In a musical climate that touted the rock-driven angst of Alanis Morissette, the humble, yet explosive beginnings of D'Angelo and neo-soul and hip-hop and indie rock reaching their experimental apexes, no one really expected a classically-trained pianist with the heart of a poet and the anger of a rock frontman to bring piano-driven jazz rock to the table.
You see, Apple didn't care what you had to say, nor did she really want to. From speaking her mind at award shows to providing thoughtful, realistic lyrics about broken relationships and what it means to be a woman in her world, it was Apple's tree that had the most room to grow.
On her 1998 debut, "Tidal," Apple would dissect her recent breakup with her first boyfriend. Her piano playing led the charge with jazz rhythms and rock-inspired production backing her up. Her voice has always been a performance in itself, playing off of the great female jazz vocalists in Nina Simone, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. She embodied these women; made them a part of her psyche, but also wanted you to remember that she was her own entity.
1999's "When the Pawn…" and 2005's "Extraordinary Machine" would find Apple working with producer and film composer Jon Brion, who would push her soundscapes into newer, daring territory. The former built upon the jazz rock that defined "Tidal," arguably making it better. The latter would see her start to dive into the art pop echelon.
Apple wouldn't release another album until 2012, and "The Idler Wheel…" would become a summation of her career thus far. The percussive elements of her music were turned to 11, making for a more tribal, ritualistic type of art pop. Her piano balladry would continue to blossom, presenting some of the best love songs and vocal performances of her career. The album would go on to top year-end charts and become one of the defining albums of the 2010s.
It's safe to say 2020 has been just as good as any other year to Apple because "Fetch the Bolt Cutters" is a complex, yet rudimentary lesson in evolution. The album is her most percussive yet -- if there's a bass or guitar line, it's presented in a percussive manner, as well. The production aims for Apple's vocals and piano work to be the star of the show, and they are.
"I Want You to Love Me" begins the album with an electronic rhythm before introducing one of the most uplifting and secular piano riffs in Apple's catalog. Her lyrics are raw and unkempt, speaking of her childhood and what made her who she is. By the end of the track, Apple is bellowing like a gospel singer before going into an interjectory freak-out.
"Shameika" picks up the pace with a taunting piano motif, remaining in the same key as the last song. The transition is perfect and really puts the album's dynamic range on display. Apple's storytelling is remarkably compelling here, speaking on the fear of being herself around others because she was scared of them.
"I used to walk down the streets on my way to school, grinding my teeth to a rhythm invisible," says Apple, slowly building up every line with urgency. The piano riff and rhythm section behind her grow increasingly tense and borderline sinister before raising the key to major in the chorus. "Shameika said I had potential … Shameika wasn't gentle and she wasn't my friend, but she got through to me and I'll never see her again." The song is a powerful display that one person can have a profound effect on your self-confidence.
Some of the songs on "Fetch the Bolt Cutters" sound as grand as an opera singer giving their final performance, or as gritty as a street performer just trying to make enough change to buy a sandwich. Apple's musings on her own troubling past are spellbinding and relatable. She is trying to learn to trust people again -- man or woman -- but one of the most enlightening messages of the album comes in album highlight, "Ladies."
"Ladies" is mesmerizing and thought-provoking, a woman's anthem for the ages. Its swinging R&B rhythm keeps it accessible and almost danceable, while its lyricism breeds new ground for women to connect with one another in times of turmoil.
"Ladies, ladies, ladies, ladies, take it easy. When he leaves me, please be my guest to whatever I might've left in his kitchen cupboards, in the back of his bathroom cabinets." The song is word-for-word a masterpiece, insisting to ladies they're all connected in a sense. If a man cheats, it's not your fault, nor is it the woman he cheated on you with. Apple actually stated she met one of the women her ex-boyfriend cheated on her with, and they got along very well. "Nobody can replace anybody else, so it would be a shame to make it a competition. And love is like any other love, so it would be insane to make a comparison with you."
Succeeding tracks, "Heavy Balloon" and "Cosmonauts," cement a gripping three-track-run. "Heavy Balloon" is one of the heaviest tracks on the album, breaking through the trance "Ladies" incites. "Cosmonauts," another album highlight, touches on the idea of monogamy being a hopeful, beautiful idea, even if it might never work out. The piano balladry that defines Apple's career shines through and the instrumentation is some of the most complete on the album.
The album has moments where the instrumentation takes a back seat to Apple's beat-like poetry, and this can make for unfulfilling song structure. It's enthralling to always listen to Apple's tales, but some of the songs can become a bit monotonous. The title track has minimalist backing percussion which doesn't really take any daring turns as the song progresses. It would've been nice to see it play off of Apple's performance a bit more.
The last three tracks on the album seem a bit shoehorned and don't particularly build off the album's stronger moments. "For You" is a harmonized onslaught that takes the listener by storm, while its lyrics that give strength to rape victims really push the message forward. "Drumset" and "On I Go" contain great ideas, but all feel a little half baked. If they all had a little more direction, it would've made for a much more impactful finale.
Apple never falls too far from the tree, always pushing the ideas of her greatest influences forward. In doing so, she has become one of the greatest songwriters of our generation with an immediately discernible style and lyricism that speaks volumes to women and men alike. Her music remains emotive and timeless, with people afraid to mimic her style or just always standing in awe of the sheer velocity she always brings to her art.
"Fetch the Bolt Cutters" signifies another victory in a sea of victories for Apple. It seems the woman can do no wrong, forever connected to her audience while finding new ways to connect to herself. I'm just happy we get to go along for the ride because she always finds new ways to push us forward. Like the final lines of "On I Go," remember to just live in the moment: "On I go, not toward or away. Up until now it was day, next day. Up until now in a rush to prove, but now I only move to move."
Final rating: 4.25/5
Featured Image: Courtesy Relevant Magazine