‘Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” the new album by Fiona Apple, has been widely hailed as a masterwork.
It currently has the all-time highest score on Metacritic, a review aggregation site, and it received a rare perfect-10 rating from Pitchfork, the famously picky taste-making music publication, when it was released two weeks ago. A critic for Slate christened it “the unofficial album of the pandemic.”
How much of that rapturous response is because of the music itself, and how much has to do with the strange world into which the record has emerged, fortunately, is a question that doesn’t matter. Leave that to the future and immerse yourself in a collection of music that is great on its merits as well as perfectly calibrated for a moment in American life that Apple seems to have eerily anticipated.
The album, Apple’s first since 2012, was recorded mostly at her home in California, and sounds like the work of an artist staying put for a very long time and coming close to falling apart. She’s been social distancing for years, and while the rest of the world is struggling to adjust, Apple has channeled isolation into art that’s both of its time and light years removed from it.
The songs on “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” have such an intimate physicality that they seem to leave dust trails as they move through time, offering a real dimensional sense of the spaces in which they were made. You perceive the distance of the backing vocals in the stereo mix, the reverb on Apple’s booming piano chords, the percussive sounds of hands clapping and household utensils striking flat surfaces, the occasional dog barking uncooperatively in the background.
Her overdue coronation as Queen of the Introverts has been hard-earned. Apple was a classically trained musical prodigy who got famous as a teenager in the 1990s.
Her debut album, “Tidal,” and the notoriously trashy video for the hit “Criminal,” turned her into a darling of the Lilith Fair subculture and a target for a sexist music press that quickly branded her a “difficult woman” and made her a tabloid fixture.
Meanwhile, Apple always spoke with candor about mental health and sexual assault long before it was normal to do so, and was repaid for her fragile bravery with a level of cultural awe that few of her ‘90s alt-rock peers have maintained. The stretches between albums get longer, but her discography — still only four albums deep — is cherished by a growing and tightening fanbase.
That entire 25-year journey feels crystalized in the instant-classic track “Under the Table,” in which Apple tells a nominal partner to “Kick me under the table all you want, I won’t shut up,” as a polyphonous vocal melody drops in with a line that’s just as sharp: “I would beg to disagree, but begging disagrees with me.”
That outward fierceness springing from such a well-defined interiority, I think, is what makes “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” such a powerful record in 2020. It’s like Apple is holding a megaphone for the voices being drowned out during the pandemic — the ones that don’t care about finishing a self-improvement project, or measuring their quarantine productivity against what’s in their social media feed, or posting the new recipe they just discovered.
“Fetch the Bolt Cutters” is the sound of not feeling like doing a Zoom reunion with high school friends, of not opening the corporate email that says “In these challenging times,” of not watching the latest celebrity livestream, of not really missing going out. It’s the sound of no longer caring about limiting the kids’ screen time, or about waiting till Friday to pour a stiff drink, or even till five o’clock. It’s the sound of showering (if you even feel like it) and then just putting sweatpants back on.
It’s the sound of not pretending everything’s going to be OK, of not wanting the world to go back to normal, of realizing how much of “normal” wasn’t great to begin with. This is the music of now.