Review: Fiona Apple and the stark sounds of 2020

Fiona Apple is like a rare orchid. She blooms only occasionally, you’re dazzled and amazed by the colours she shows you, and then she fades away for a long time. Fetch The Bolt Cutters is her first album in 8 years, and it turns out it’s the isolation soundtrack of our strange days. 

It sure sounds like a record about this moment, even if it’s one that’s been in the works for years. A fascinating New Yorker profile goes into Cutters’ long genesis and Apple’s idiosyncratic path from brief MTV pop star with the hit “Criminal” in 1996 to today, in her early 40s, carefully spending years crafting music. Whenever she returns, Apple is always worth listening to.

Cutters, only Apple’s fifth album in 24 years, is not a gentle listen – her stern, anguished voice and clattering, raw percussion are placed right at the foreground, giving it an almost rap/spoken word cadence, with the elegant piano of her earlier work only coming in as occasional flourishes. Recorded at her home, you even hear her dogs barking occasionally. These are songs stripped to the bone and always on the edge of collapse.  

It’s stark and sometimes abrasive, reminding me a lot of Sinead O’Connor, Lou Reed or primal scream-era John Lennon, but it’s also full of wistful beauty floating in at unexpected moments and a welcome relief from pop songs so processed you can’t find the real core. It feels real. “I resent you for presenting your life like a fucking propaganda brochure,” she spits out in “Relay.” 

Broadly, Bolt Cutters is about heartbreak and betrayal – there’s a lot of anger and cutting lines. Apple’s lyrics are just opaque enough to be grabbed and molded into your own little mantras. “Kick me under the table all you want, I won’t shut up,” she sings. It’s an album that evokes singing to yourself in an empty room, of facing off against your inner demons and past.

We’re all coping with isolation in different ways, but there’s definitely a lot of stock-taking going on. Who are we, and in this peculiar pause in day-to-day rituals, who can we be? I suspect Bring Out The Bolt Cutters is going to playing in my head for a long time as we all try to make sense of 2020. 

Author: nik dirga

I'm an American journalist who has lived in New Zealand for more than a decade now.

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