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Fiona Apple Returns to a World That’s More Bullshit Than Ever

The singer-songwriter is set to release ‘Fetch the Bolt Cutters,’ her long-gestating fifth album, at a perfect time for her brand of genius

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I had a pretty intense moment the other day with the Fiona Apple song “Werewolf.” I almost called it an “emo moment” but that felt glib; I almost didn’t use the first person (which felt indulgent) but fuck it.

“Werewolf” appears on her last album, 2012’s The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do. (I almost didn’t write out the full title, but that felt disrespectful.) There’s a concussive kick drum, and a little upright bass, and a very brief outburst of banjo. But as with much of the record—only Apple’s fourth overall since her 1996 debut, Tidal, made her one of the alt-rock era’s most ferocious and misunderstood and reclusive and above all enduring stars—it’s mostly just stark piano and her eternally startling voice.

That voice, in another song on an earlier record, had taught me the word stentorian (which is embarrassing), and since then, for me anyway, it has always embodied the word. She’s reliably bellowing even at her quietest, wounding even at her gentlest.

I could liken you to a werewolf
The way you left me for dead
But I admit that I provided a full moon
And I could liken you to a shark
The way you bit off my head
But then again I was waving around a bleeding open wound

Intense, but that’s not the moment, nor is it the terrifying bridge, which kicks off with a huge, ragged, painfully audible intake of breath before she starts bellowing:

The lava of a volcano
Shot up hot from under the sea
One thing leads to another
And you made an island of me

Apple more or less screams at several points during The Idler Wheel, including “Daredevil” (“Seek! Me! Out! / Look at! / Look at! / Look at! / Look at! / Me!”) and the extra-harrowing “Regret.” (“But I ran out of white doves’ feathers / To soak up the hot piss that comes from your mouth / Every time you address me.”) But on “Werewolf” there’s an eerie sense of calm by the time she gets here ...

And I could liken you to a lot of things
But I always come around
’Cause in the end I’m a sensible girl
I know the fiction of the fix

… and halfway through those lines, WTF, here comes the Sudden Pack of Screaming Kids. They come out of nowhere—it’s a primo Do I have an open browser tab that’s autoplaying video? moment—and they are screaming, and joyful, and terrifying, and they carry on all the way through the last chorus, including the part where Apple sings, “But we can still support each other / All we gotta do’s avoid each other.” And that, finally, is the intense part, because here in April 2020, the COVID-19 outbreak has turned a pack of screaming kids into a global medical liability, and avoiding each other is pretty much all we can do for one another, and the total absence of that sort of feral collective joy is the most terrifying thing of all.

Apple’s fifth album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, is out Friday. It was originally slated for later this year, but she moved it up to way earlier—a blessed announcement made via a playful Instagram and then an even more playful (dog on the beach!) YouTube clip. And this while all other major cultural entities, from Lady Gaga to the Marvel Cinematic Universe to even Elena Ferrante, are delaying their latest masterworks until quote-unquote normalcy is restored. But this moment, in all its uncertainty and frustration and fragile hope and indestructible rage and near-total isolation, is Fiona Apple’s moment: I can’t think of a single living musician whose theoretical new album better harmonizes with the dour-but-defiant international mood of Friday, April 17, 2020.

I definitely almost didn’t frame it this way. Even after just six weeks or so of widespread self-quarantining, it is exhausting to assess every new piece of entertainment—from Tiger King to Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia to Trolls World Tour—through the lens of current events. The “________ Is the Perfect ________ for the Coronavirus Era” construction will hold up for only so long, to the extent it ever held up at all.

But, and please continue to forgive the indulgence, I myself am having a hell of a time not doing this: My strong suspicion is that every song and TV episode and movie and video game I ingest during this time, old and new, will forever bear the mark of this moment, no matter how normal our eventual restored normalcy turns out to be. Yes, even Golf Story. Escapism is not, in this moment, a thing. So I won’t even pretend to approach Fetch the Bolt Cutters objectively. Because Fiona Apple long ago mastered the dark art of making people feel better by viscerally dramatizing the times when she appears to have felt the worst.

For “Werewolf,” Apple had originally wanted to sample a random battle scene from a random film she’d caught one day on Turner Classic Movies, which appears to be her favorite cable channel: “I always have it on, while I sleep, whatever,” she explained to Carrie Battan in a 2012 Pitchfork interview. That didn’t work out. Enter the Pack of Screaming Kids, also random, and field-recorded by Apple herself:

But on the first morning we were planning to record, I had just gotten out of the shower and I heard all these kids screaming—there’s an elementary school across from my house in L.A. I was like, “Oh shit, that’s it.” I threw on whatever was right there—which I didn’t realize at the time was a pair of pants that I was going to throw away because the ass was split—and I ran out, half-clothed, carrying my recording thing. I was standing there looking like a crazy person, watching these kids. They were jumping with balloons between their legs, trying to make them pop. In the actual song, we had to take out all the balloon pops because they sounded like gunshots. But it was so perfect.

The part about wearing pants not fit for public consumption still sounds familiar, at least. Much of The Idler Wheel’s power comes from its triumphant vulnerability, its stark and foreboding intimacy, and its stubborn solitude. “How can I ask anyone to love me,” goes the most quotable chorus, “When all I do is beg to be left alone?”

A Fiona Apple record is a rare event, a Fiona Apple tour is even rarer, and a frivolous Fiona Apple public sighting is somehow the rarest of all. Sample question from that Pitchfork interview: “Do you go anywhere at all?” (Her answer was the beloved L.A. rock clubhouse Largo, but per a March 2020 New Yorker profile written by Emily Nussbaum, Apple hasn’t even gone there for five years, preferring the comfort of her house in Venice Beach.)

Even The Idler Wheel’s warmer moments vibrate with menace, with unease, with a healthy distance that’s as much for your benefit as hers. I love the foreboding timpani-and-vocal-acrobatics pulse of “Hot Knife” very much, and it is ostensibly a love song (“He excites me!”), but from the title image on down it doesn’t quite feel like one. Plus “And you can / And you can / And you can relax around me” is without question the funniest thing Fiona Apple has ever said.

A great way to not relax one bit is to revisit a dozen longform Fiona Apple magazine profiles spanning the past 20-odd years. She emerged fully formed on Tidal, sultry and steely and biting in the extreme. The closing song, “Carrion,” is the most disorienting—the jaunty sleigh bells, the noisy guitar solo, the punch-drunk rhythm—and the most indicative of where we’d all eventually end up. Lyrically, it’s the gnarliest moment, too:

My feel for you, boy, is decaying in front of me
Like the carrion of a murdered prey
And all I want is to save you, honey
Or the strength to walk away

But what resonated most from that era was the softcore provocation of the “Criminal” video, which was intended as ironic detachment but never quite managed to detach itself. “I decided if I was going to be exploited, then I would do the exploiting myself,” Apple explained in a 1997 Spin cover story that in her view severely misinterpreted her sarcasm as it pertained, for example, to such declarations as, “I‘m going to cut another album, and I’m going to do good things, help people, and then I’m going to die.”

”They screwed me from the beginning,” she told The Washington Post in 1999, while promoting her second album, When the Pawn…, whose full 90-word title was a direct response to the irate reader mail that Spin profile inspired. “They knew what they were going to do with the story and it didn’t really matter what I said, but I said some things that they could very easily edit together and make me look like a moron.”

By that point, of course, Apple was also still grappling with the backlash to her infamous “This world is bullshit” speech at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards, an anti-celebrity-worship broadside that, as Nussbaum wrote last month in The New Yorker, “seems, in retrospect, most shocking for how on target it is.” Even relatively copacetic early press encounters are full of outlandish moments like the 1998 Rolling Stone cover story in which Apple tears up while listening to Janeane Garofalo mock the VMAs speech on a recent Denis Leary comedy album. (That’s the ’90s for you.)

It is not so shocking that the Fiona Apple experience in the 21st century has been built around scarcity, and seclusion, and distance more physical than emotional. My favorite song on When the Pawn begins thus:

How many times
Do I have to say
To get away
Get gone

And my favorite three-song run in Apple’s whole catalog comes late on 2005’s Extraordinary Machine, a pummeling near-orchestral fantasia with a comically tortured music-biz-atrocity backstory. The solo-piano-and-bellowing exorcism “Parting Gift” (“Oh you silly stupid pastime of mine!”) begets the jaunty and clattering argument-stopper “Window” …

So I had to break the window
It just had to be
Better that I break the window
Than him, or her, or me

… begets the heart-stopping post-breakup battle hymn “Oh Well,” which is indeed stentorian as all hell. Furthermore, my favorite detail from the New Yorker piece is that Apple’s least favorite of her own songs is that album’s “Please Please Please,” which was written at her record company’s insistence, and features a chorus that goes:

Give us something familiar
Something similar
To what we know already
That will keep us steady
Steady, steady, steady
Steady going nowhere

You’re welcome. It’s not that Apple doesn’t do intense interviews anymore, or that she’s entirely abandoned the barbed but theoretically radio-friendly swagger that made “Criminal” a likely hit even without that fucking video. (J.Lo’s strident pole-dancing reclamation of the song in 2019’s Hustlers still made Apple very happy.) But The Idler Wheel is percussive, combative, and industrial in the literal, physical, sample-of-a-bottle-factory sense; it takes a maximal approach to its minimalism, it’s unpolished but painstakingly refined. Most of what little we know about Fetch the Bolt Cutters comes from The New Yorker: “At first,” Nussbaum writes, “she recorded long, uncut takes of herself hitting instruments against random things.” It might be Apple’s unfriendliest record yet, in the radio sense. But it might be her most resonant in terms of reflecting The Way We All Live Right Now.

Which is to say that even the sight of a dog frolicking on a beach in 2020 has a painfully wistful undertone to it. Which is to say that we’re all, at this point, pretty much just sitting around hitting random things with other random things. Making very specific demands of Fiona Apple has never been a good idea, and never ended well—not for us, and certainly not for her. But in print and in song, she at least sounds more content now than she did way back then. She is in control just in time for the rest of the world to spin totally out of control. Her new record might not invite you in, in the conventional sense. But don’t be surprised if you end up feeling closer to her than ever.