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Fiona Apple Is at Her Sharpest—and Most Playful—on ‘Fetch the Bolt Cutters’

The album, a remarkable dissection of trauma, is an instant classic from an artist who’s become impossible to brush off in the past two decades

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In 1997, a 20-year-old Fiona Apple graced the November cover of Spin magazine, her blue eyes piercing the page, glossed lips smirking. Bold yellow text dubs it “THE GIRL ISSUE.” Subtext: “SHE’S BEEN A BAD, BAD GIRL.” Apple had released her breakout debut Tidal the previous year, but the profile doesn’t focus on that. Instead it paints Apple, in disturbing detail, as a sexy, bothered teen, a talented troublemaker for your lust and contempt.

“At the meet and greet, she’s still in her stage clothes, which are both sexy and girlish (assuming there’s a difference between sexy and girlish, which is something Apple forces you to consider): tight black stretch bell-bottoms, a black bra under a lace top, black pony boots, and a backstage pass hung from her navel ring.”

The boys’ club music criticism of that era treated its (rare) female subjects like novelty products. (See: Britney Spears’s Rolling Stone cover story from 1999, wherein the writer spends a full paragraph illustrating the singer’s “ample chest” and “honeyed thigh.”) Apple was both pop-star jailbait and a hysterical woman in a 19th-century novel, whose appearances and mannerisms were to be sensationalized with flowery indulgence. When Apple mentions her experience with rape, it’s brushed off as the frivolous ramblings of a young girl: “Indeed, she talked about whatever came to her head.”

Bad men have made their exits and entrances throughout Apple’s entire life. She’s been used and manipulated—by lovers, strangers, the music industry. This isn’t new subject matter for the artist, who spent 24 years and four albums undressing wounds that went untreated, as well as the nuances and guilt that came with acquiring them. 2012’s The Idler Wheel… gave the injuries vivid diagnoses. But on her fifth album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, out last Friday, she dissects them. Apple’s knife has a sharper edge, her language more precise, as she breaks down the stories that shaped her. It’s the angriest, most unvarnished we’ve ever heard her—she sputters and coos, stomps and squeals. It’s also her at her most playful.

The Fiona Apple of 1999’s When the Pawn... and 2005’s Extraordinary Machine might’ve been described as “theatrical,” with Jon Brion’s lilting production, cinematic music videos directed by her former partner Paul Thomas Anderson, and Apple’s naturally striking voice. But Fetch the Bolt Cutters’ dog barks, door slams, and dolphin-like trills are anything but performative. It’s the unfiltered symphony of a crowded mind, processing trauma in real time.

Apple writes about her past, present, and future as if they’re all transpiring at once. Album opener “I Want You to Love Me” speaks to her ex and her imaginary future partner. Love doesn’t end; it stretches on and changes form. Time disintegrates and relationships blend together. “I know that time is elastic / And I know when I go all my particles disband and disperse / And I’ll be back in the pulse,” her voice vibrates. Apple elaborated on this line in an interview with Vulture, explaining the “pulse” as “life and death,” the energy we share. Apple had this spiritual epiphany in 2010 while on a six-day meditation trip with about 75 other women. “It’s the biggest thing that’s ever happened to me in my life,” she said. “It changed everything for me.”

Fetch the Bolt Cutters’ pulse is powered by a pursuit of the Divine Feminine, a collaborative consciousness that rejects a world collapsing under patriarchal values. Since her first album, Fiona Apple’s work has always been tied to the complexities and contradictions of the “female experience,” having to defend her very existence under the limelight. She’s called out men who’ve wronged and taken advantage of her and damned the love and violence that made her vulnerable. Now, she widens the scope of her introspection. It’s not about #girlpower, it’s about power.

Apple traces her learned compliance back to middle school on “Shameika,” when she craved approval from the popular girls. The song’s titular character—a few years older, hardly an acquaintance—said she’s better off without them, and she instinctually believed her. “Sebastian said I’m a good man in a storm,” Apple recites like a riddle, referring to a comment her bassist made after a stressful run-in with the cops. Still, what matters is Shameika’s affirmation, her reassurance. Apple’s spiraling piano and mad blips of laughter come to a halt: “Shameika said I had potential.” She told Vulture, “My middle-school experience is still so important to me. Mainly because that’s where my relationship to women started getting fucked up.”

“Newspaper” recounts the affairs she maintained with men while trying to connect with their girlfriends and wives, the culturally enforced rivalry among women who curse the mistress and leave the cheating man unscathed. Solidarity is Apple’s goal, an alliance untainted by these men. “I wonder what lies he’s telling you about me / To make sure that we’ll never be friends,” she whirrs, her sister Maude’s harmonies glowing against what sounds like a sentient kitchen. “When I learned what he did, I felt close to you / In my own way, I fell in love with you.”

The track’s percussion—a distant rattling, dings and clanks, possibly pots and pans—was recorded all in one take, with bandmate and coproducer Amy Aileen Wood’s kit drums layered on top. Apple’s Venice Beach home, where the album was created, has its own voice throughout the album. She recorded herself banging instruments against couches and walls, a metal butterfly and a stove top she found in an alley, repeating vocals in freewheeling mutations. Several of her and her friends’ dogs are credited by name—Mercy, Maddie, Leo, Little, and Alfie. There’s a wild sense of domesticity, of being cooped up in the house, trapped inside your brain or the brain of who they told you to be. And there’s the sound of fetching the bolt cutters and breaking free.

Apple moves to her proverbial podium to sing “Ladies,” addressing her fellow women directly, and the potential friendships foiled by the men who deceived them. “Ladies, ladies, ladies,” she says in an almost drunken drawl, the plunk of an upright bass joining in as if she’s about to launch into slam poetry. “Yet another woman to whom I won’t get through ... When he leaves me, please be my guest / To whatever I mighta left in his kitchen cupboards.” Her voice rises and falls in giggles and growls.

Apple fights infatuation with indignation and fends off the urge to nurture with rage. Her tone is tongue-in-cheek at times, staring right through men’s unchallenged sense of control, the autonomy she gave up for years. She mocks their guitar collections, implores them to kick her under the table for her outspoken dinner party commentary. “Relay” repurposes a line Apple wrote at 15, pulled from the mind of a young woman watching her social value shift from innocent child to sexy object. She claps along as if it’s a schoolyard chant, “Evil is a relay sport / When the one who’s burned / Turns to pass the torch.” The song breaks down the privilege awarded to certain well-meaning and clean-cut men. “I resent you for being raised right ... I resent you for never getting any opposition at all.” Its chorus is paced like jumping rope, the verses beat slow. The spirit feels more primal than a modern-day rallying cry, humming and wailing and stomping until Apple’s bare falsetto trails off in the outro, alone again.

Apple isn’t interested in making a statement or using capital-W Women as a theme. She isn’t touting empowerment, which is why the songs are genuinely empowering. They aren’t polished, deodorant commercial anthems. The album succeeds in its unglamorous candor and imperfections, embracing the chaos that pop feminism often ignores. Fetch the Bolt Cutters isn’t political, it’s human.

Market-friendly wokeness and the #MeToo movement have spotlighted more women’s voices in recent years, but systemic power dynamics haven’t changed much from when Apple was a teenager on the cover of Spin or a student in the cafeteria. “For Her” was devised shortly after the nomination hearings of the Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Apple’s trauma is the centerpiece for a web of suffering, weaving a blunt retelling of her own sexual assault with other womens’ experiences. “Good morning,” she knocks on a wooden block and erupts at the bridge. “You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in.”

Fetch the Bolt Cutters’ public reception was decidedly different from Spin’s skepticism circa 1997. Twenty-three years later, the now-digital magazine published a glowing review of Apple’s “challenging new record that was well worth the wait.” Bolt cutters were celebrated and memed to infinity on Twitter upon the album’s release. (You have to wonder what Apple thought of it all. Her disdain for social media is summed up in a line on “Relay”: “I resent you presenting your life like a fucking propaganda brochure.”)

With her indisputable legend status and an army of stans, it’s easy to forget the bosses and bullies Fiona Apple had to defeat to get here. They’ve dissipated over the years, as Apple has aged and proved her once-in-a-lifetime talent with a discography of classics. But the lyrical content of Fetch the Bolt Cutters forces you to consider them. They still exist; they’ve just learned to be quiet with their new victims.

Julia Gray is a Brooklyn-based music and culture writer. Her work has appeared in places like The Washington Post, Playboy, and Stereogum. She makes chaotic tweets at @juliagrayok.