At time of writing, singer-songwriter Fiona Apple’s newest album Fetch the Bolt Cutters has only been out a couple of days, yet it already looks like it’s going to be the most acclaimed album of 2020. Despite having been recording music for more than two decades, Apple has kept a very selective discography with this being only her fifth studio album since her 1996 debut Tidal.
The portrait of a relationship that is disintegrating she paints in a number of the album’s songs gently transitions from a kind of cute antagonism on tracks like the peppy yet aggressive Under the Table, to passionate but very one sided infatuation on Rack of His, attempts to reach out to his new partners and warn them falling on deaf ears on the tracks Newspaper and Ladies. Tracks like these display the most abiding sentiment of the record, a longing for a sense of camaraderie and support between women that she seems unable to find.
It’s a hugely personality-rich record with sly humour, regret and anger in abundance on every track, but some of the best songs on the album have less to do with the relationship that takes up several songs, like the track Shameika, a witty and very sad portrayal of a wasted adolescence. There’s an effective interplay between the coy melodies and the very bitter lyrical content, and unlike many singer-songwriter records – see Laura Marling’s most recent album – the instrumentation is vivid, eclectic and colourful, even cacophonous. I also really have to compliment the mixing on the album as well. It’s some of the most three-dimensional and spacious sound design I’ve ever heard. It was actually a real adjustment at first with the initial couple of tracks only sinking in on repeated listens.
It’s a very powerful and instantly impactful record but sadly just because I love the album doesn’t mean I don’t think there are a couple of duds in the track listing. The most pervasive problem is the repetitive choruses all over the album. Hooks are supposed to be repeated, of course, but Apple takes it to annoying extremes on tracks like Relay, Under the Table and Ladies – which I still loved overall. To compose the choruses on this album, she seems to have written a single, potent, eloquent and deeply evocative phrase, which she then repeats until it gives the listener a headache. And speaking of headaches, the multi-tracked, asynchronous vocals on the song For Her are an instant migraine. They do start to synch up going into the outro where she drops a bit of a bomb on the listener which acts as a bit of a climactic moment in the narrative of the album. It’s a disturbingly raw rape metaphor intended to address the sexual assault charges levelled at the most senior levels of the US justice system.
It’s a great album no doubt, with some fantastic writing, production, performance and catchy hooks, but I do find some of those hooks to have been beaten to death by the ends of their respective tracks.