Epic Records (photo:: )
Album reviews
Artist:
Fiona Apple
Album:
Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Release year:
2020
Label:
Epic
07 May 2020 / by Calvin Leung (author)

Genres: Experimental Pop, Art Pop

 

New York City, 1997. An up-and-coming pop starlet named Fiona Apple walks onto the stage of the MTV Video Music Awards to collect the Award for Best New Artist, during her acceptance speech, she said four words that will forever live in infamy in the music industry: “The world is bullshit.” 

While her speech is only remembered for those first few words, Apple was in fact calling for listeners to embrace themselves and stop following trends, showcasing a then 20-year-old artist who was wise beyond her age and unafraid to tell it like it is.

13 years later, Apple has released her long-awaited fifth studio album Fetch the Bolt Cutters, an album filled with lyrics addressing the #metoo era of gender politics and featuring music sharper than actual bolt cutters.

 

 Long gone are the era of lush strings and dense instrumentation of Tidal or Apple’s collaborations with composer Jon Brion. Even Apple’s signature use of the piano is reduced to only a handful of tracks. Instead, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is carried forward with a heavy emphasis on percussion and the clever arrangement of her vocals.

The instrumentation Apple employs manages to make these songs feel more dense and yet more stripped back compared to her previous efforts. On ‘Newspaper’, apart from Apples voice there is nothing more than percussion and a rather eclectic slap bass line. From any other artist, the song would be simplistic and sparse. Apple however, manages through a carefully designed mix to make these components sound borderline overwhelming. 

On ‘For Her’ - a song that recounts the stories of women who have been taken advantage of sexually - the instruments are stripped down to Apple’s multilayered lead vocals along with occasional drum beats to emphasize certain words until the climax of the song when the background vocal harmonies materialize into a set of gospel-inspired oohs as the song resolves to the morning after the assault.

However, it is on the traditionally arranged tracks where Fiona still shines through the most. ‘I Want You To Love Me’ is a jazz-pop track that tells a love story that hasn’t happened yet. While the track may not be as experimental as some of the other cuts on the album, it still features a Radiohead-level of effects processing on her piano and a screeching falsetto-laden vocal solo.

The same can be said about the tracks ‘Ladies’ and ‘Heavy Balloon’. The former is a sweet powerful ballad about female empowerment and self love that will fit right next to ‘Paper Bag’ on Apple’s own When the Pawn…. Like the songs of Nat King Cole and Billie Holiday, the track has a level of power and soul behind a moving instrumental that can warm the heart to even the most apathetic individual.  The latter is a blues-infused rock song that sounds like the mad love child of Tom Waits, Jeff Buckley, and U2. Apple’s raspy vocals on the track sounds like she is halfway to the pure sound of cigarette smoke that is Waits' voice.

If there is one problem with Fetch the Bolt Cutters, it’s that these songs feel most comfortable when they are set to a slightly more traditional sound. In fact, Fetch the Bolt Cutters feels rather unfocused in terms of its experimentation. Often, when a truly out of left field sound appears on the album it is not explored further and there is a sense that Apple had one major concept she wanted to explore (a heavy focus of percussion and her voice) then quickly tacked on a jumble of smaller concepts in hopes that they would stick. While there are a variety of daring sonic exploits that elevate the record and truly push the limits of pop music, the ones that do not can leave the album sounding half baked.

In the strangest way possible, this album is a disappointment, not because it is bad but because how frustratingly close it is to perfection.

 
Rating: 9/10


The author

Calvin Leung

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