Good old Fiona. We wait eight years for an album, having waited seven years for the previous one, from the artist who only writes “when she feels like it” and who spends most of her time as a recluse with her dog at her Venice Beach home, then she drops it right in the middle of a global crisis. And in doing so she defied her label, with which she has had more run-ins over the years than Babe Ruth.
It is the fifth in a ‘series’ that goes back to 1996 with ‘Tidal’, still the shortest title of any of her albums. The second was 89 words long and once held the world record, and the previous one to this, 23 words.
While she has varied album title length she hasn’t really done that with her style since the third album, ‘Extraordinary Machine’, at least not in my view. The first two albums could be classed as sophisticated pop, by which I mean very sophisticated. Apple is one of the finest lyricists in the world, with a unique, alluring vocal delivery, one that varies between the extremes of Shirley Temple and Ray Winstone, perfectly fitted to her propensity verbally to assassinate her ‘ex-s’ and to bare her soul to the world while doing it, more convincingly than anyone else on the planet.
With ‘Extraordinary Machine’ she began to develop a jazz-influenced style, sacrificing melody for odd rhythms and sudden dramatic changes, especially in key and tempo, and that has stuck with her through ‘The Idler Wheel’ (the shortened title of album #4) and this one.
I am not going to attempt to analyse the album here, and analyse is the right word, critique wouldn’t really do it justice, just to say a few words. Although immensely difficult to listen to at times it can be riveting, she’s like a one-woman play, you can visualise her acting out her role every bit as much as playing and singing it, as indeed she does on her very rare live appearances.
What I will say is that at the time of writing ‘Fetch the Bolt Cutters’ has a weighted average perfect score of 100/100 on Metacritic (which aggregates critical reviews in the trade and general media, there were 12 in this sample). It is currently the highest acclaimed album in Metacritic’s history by any artist.
On this album, Apple has dispensed with the services of her drummer and producer, Charley Drayton, who was with her on the last two, and produced it herself while playing a host of instruments apart from piano, including a chair. It has a very raw feel to it. In fact some songs sound like they were recorded in her kitchen or bathroom; perhaps even in the garden. The three musicians who worked with her might as well have been on their own personal lockdown, the amount of time it took to record it and after years of work she almost junked it last winter and had to be rallied around by them to continue.
And for the first time I know of several (I count at least four) of the 13 tracks are overtly based around the rhythms she devised for a previous track - the final one on ‘The Idler Wheel’ - ‘Hot Knife’ - which she recorded with her sister, Amber, better known as the international cabaret artist Maude Maggart. Amber appears on several tracks on this album. Also making an appearance is Cara Delevingne, the model-cum-singer who is St Vincent’s ‘ex’.
Several tracks also include a contribution, if you can call it that, from her dog, though it isn’t in tune. Fiona Apple is somewhat obsessive about her dogs. In 2012 she cancelled a tour of Latin America because a previous one, Janet, was sick.
Some of the tracks are spoken rather than sung, in that ‘Hot Knife’ style. On the first track, ‘I want you to love me’, she conjures up possibly the most melodic piano line she’s ever found, certainly since her debut album, but after that there are few ‘tunes’. What there is fairly structure-less but intense music which frames her unremittingly biting lyrics which on this occasion range over her social relationships with other women, giving the poor men a break for a change. However, she never reaches the paroxysm in ‘Regret’ on ‘The Idler Wheel’ where she “runs out of white dove feathers to soak up the hot piss that comes from your mouth” in one of the most deranged verbal assaults in recording history.
Apple’s lyrics can be simply exquisite. ‘Under the Table’ opens with “I would beg to disagree, but begging disagrees with me”. Does that sound like Squeeze’s “I’d beg for some forgiveness but begging’s not my business” from ‘Up the Junction’? Yes, but there’s no channelling there, just three great writing minds which think alike. Difford, Tilbrook and Apple. Could be a firm of solicitors.
It was very difficult to select one song as a sample of this album. In the end I opted for the opener, ‘I want you to love me’, partly because it is the most tuneful track, secondly because it hints at some of the vocal tricks she gets up to later in the album and thirdly because it introduces her new drummer Amy Aileen Wood, whose style is very much in the mould of Charley Drayton. Apple has often based her songs on Drayton’s complex beats, which were laid down first.
But mainly because the title could be the story to Apple’s life; a hopeless loser in love.