Fiona Apple’s “Fetch the Bolt Cutters:” What The Album Means to Me

When asked what my favorite album is, I wish I could respond with an album from my childhood that has played on repeat almost perpetually since I owned a CD player. I wish I could respond with an album sung by an artist who I’ve had a long-term personal connection with, or perhaps an unhealthy obsession with (Hello, Harry Styles). I (embarrassingly) wish I could respond with a vintage record, one that makes me look like a wise old soul. My favorite album, though, does not fall into any of these categories. Fetch The Bolt Cutters by Fiona Apple, although only released this year in 2020, has quite honestly lived in my mind rent free since the moment it came out. I believe it will always be my favorite record for years to come. 

That was a big build-up, I know, but my admiration for this album is so strong that I felt like it deserved one. And apparently, so do critics, as Fetch The Bolt Cutters was the first album since 2010 to receive an 100% meta-score review by Pitchfork Magazine. Very few artists can encompass an emotion so deliberately yet effortlessly in the way that Fiona Apple can. Her lyrics are raw, bold, mean, spitting, and desperate, in the best way possible. They give off this intense feeling of being on the brink of losing control, as if you are teetering on the edge of something, but never able to fully fall off. Fetch The Bolt Cutters is not at all “pretty,” but it is beautiful in the way that it demands the ugliest of emotions to be felt fully and wholeheartedly.  

Fetch The Bolt Cutters is an album with no skips, in my opinion. Every song brings you into a different corner of Fiona’s psyche that is begging to be heard and understood. That being said, there are a few standout songs that, to me, are just brilliant in every way. For example, “Cosmonauts” tells the story of a love that has become reliant instead of organic. It describes Fiona’s invisible tether, her unhealthy attachment, to someone who will never be able to bring her happiness, but whom she still leans on for happiness regardless. She writes, “When you resist me, hon, I cease to exist, because I only like the way I look when looking through your eyes,” describing a dependency on a partner who she cannot leave without losing herself, too. In “Ladies,” Apple writes, “Nobody can replace anybody else, so it would be a shame to make it a competition. And no love is like any other love, so it would be insane to make a comparison.” I absolutely love these lyrics and the message of this song. Apple is writing about a personal experience with an affair, but relating it to the bigger issue of society’s manipulation in pitting women against each other. The ideology that men are the prize and women are the competition holding us back from “winning” is instilled in us from a young age. Apple pleads with an audience of ladies to stand together against the person at fault for an act as awful as adultery instead of competing with the “other woman,” but she does it in a way that makes the audience read between the lines and really decipher the true meaning. Nothing is provided for free in Fetch The Bolt Cutters; every song's meaning requires thought and attention to fully decipher, which I respect immensely. 

In “Shameika,” Apple delves deep in her memory all the way back to adolescence, when the feeling of inadequacy, outcast, and angst first arose. She writes, “I used to walk down the streets on my way to school, grinding my teeth to a rhythm invisible. I used my feet to crush dead leaves like they had fallen from trees. Just for me. Just to be crash cymbals.” I laughed along with these lyrics when I first heard them, because they reminded me of myself as a child in so many ways. When you are a kid, everything is exaggerated and a bigger deal than it seems – and you almost want it that way. It’s “main character syndrome,” as some might put it today. When you are happy, the world is your oyster, but when you are upset or angry, it’s as if you have to showcase that emotion to the world in order for it to be fully felt and seen. Fiona never felt fully seen as a kid, though, no matter how much she let her angst stream out unapologetically, which conditioned her to push it down within herself. That is, until she used music as an escape from those emotional walls built all her life. 

Much of Fiona’s earlier music has consisted of melodic piano ballads, and though they were still honest and emotional, they came off neat and coordinated. Fetch The Bolt Cutters is quite the opposite in all aspects. It is messy and frantic, like words sprawled on scrap paper in illegible handwriting instead of typed, edited, and printed. Stylistically, Apple uses unconventional song structure, repetition,  and unexpected crescendos that quickly subside into whispers in order to mirror the themes of instability in her songwriting. Fiona chose to write and record the entire album within her home instead of a recording studio with professional equipment. Her incorporation of “homemade instruments” (ie: using the kitchen stove, pots, and pans as a drumset in many songs) creates a sense of authenticity that would have been unachievable in a high-tech studio. She disregards the sounds that are emitted in her environment, as her dogs bark and howl in the background of her recordings. The artist herself is a bit of a recluse, admitting to confining herself to her home in Los Angeles for most of the past decade by choice. The overwhelming, hectic, and constricted setting in which the album was created mirrors the overarching motifs of the album as a whole, which was a very smart and conscious decision. 

It is clear that the emotions and struggles that Apple puts front and center in her album have been belittled and pushed aside by others in the past. In “I Want You To Love Me,” the first track of the album, she sings, “And I know none of this'll matter in the long run, but I know a sound is still a sound around no one,” describing this exact struggle. To those that have hurt her, perhaps she comes off as resentful, bitter, and non forgiving, but she doesn’t care. She is aware that, to most, these feelings are not of importance and will eventually subside, but refuses to put on a facade and diminish her intensity and anguish for the comfort of others. Instead, she will bask in it all she wants, yelling and murmuring and clanging pots and pans to her heart’s desire; anything to get this emotion out. 

That seems to be a main theme of Fiona’s album: feeling trapped within the walls of her own mind and unresolved trauma and desperately wanting to claw her way out. The album title, which Fiona coined before writing any of the album’s songs, expresses this perfectly. It is as though she needs heavy-duty bolt cutters to free herself from the psychological jail that she, and the past, has placed her in. Though the theme of Fetch The Bolt Cutters seems dark and depressing, the overall mood of this album is anything but. The expected controlled melancholy is replaced with overwhelming anger and an honest yet unhinged expression of hurt, almost as if the words toppling off her tongue are doing so unbeknownst to her, but remain ultimately true regardless of how they’re being said. Fetch The Bolt Cutters insights a gentle but persistent ache within listeners, almost as though your chest is tightening with every biting word she has to speak and every note that matches with it. With bravery, patience, and honesty, Fiona Apple has highlighted emotions through music that seldom desire to be felt, but deserve to be experienced fully and unapologetically.