Fiona Apple’s announcement that she would be puncturing the spring of 2020, a period defined by lockdowns and outbreaks, with a new album was one of the season’s better pieces of news even before a note of it was made available to the press. “Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” out Friday, is the fifth album she’s released in 24 years — and it’s an ideal album for this decisively odd moment, its homemade feel (much of it was recorded in her house, with percussion partially supplied by objects around her home) and sense of awe giving it a defiant energy.
2012′s “The Idler Wheel,” Apple’s previous album, reveled in its sparseness, with her husky alto taking center stage amid bare-minimum arrangements. On “Fetch,” that instrument is slightly frayed at the edges, but it remains the focal point, launching into melodies that are instantly sticky as effortlessly as it engages in tensely rhythmic Sprechstimme. This time out, though, the music surrounding it is thrumming and chaotic, with crashing percussion guiding it along as cloud-borne choirs zoom into and out of frame and gnarled instruments rise up and fall back.
Lyrically, much of “Fetch” is a rebuke to the toxic notion of “that’s the way things are,” particularly when it comes to how women view themselves and each other — and Apple takes time to examine just how those two ideas are in constant conversation. The freewheeling “Shameika,” anchored by a rolling piano line, details childhood bullying and classroom anomie, which was sliced through by a woman who told Apple she “had potential”: “She got through to me and I’ll never see her again,” she laments, a realization that turns the pain she felt into a badge of honor.
“Newspaper” shines a harsh spotlight on the way women are casually and cruelly pitted against each other in the game of love. “I wonder what lies he’s telling you about me to make sure we’d never be friends?” Apple muses to another lover of her ex’s over clanging percussion and a spectral choir. Gradually, the tempo increases, the ghostly vocals hovering around Apple’s recounting of two lives in parallel growing more claustrophobic as the clamor grows and Apple’s intensity spikes — she bays that she’s “trying not to let my light go out,” over and over, and as the music recedes her bellow shrinks into a whisper. It’s full-body horror at the loss of one’s spirit, set to music that’s both mournful and horrified.
Apple's matter-of-fact depictions of everyday brutality only make "Fetch" more bracing. "For Her" is one of the album's most arresting songs, a portrait of a woman who's been viewed as a man's accessory that's sung in a gossipy sing-song cadence that slows as his bad behavior gets worse; when it breaks into Apple gasping "Good mornin', good mornin'/ You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in," it shape-shifts into a fever dream, the backing vocals eventually settling into an abstracted wail. "Heavy Balloon" is a quivering portrayal of world-warping depression and the fight against it, with Apple growling "I've been sucking it in so long that I'm busting at the seams" in a way that seems almost hopeful about an eventual break.
But to focus only on Apple’s fervor misses the point. She’s cocked her eyebrow at society since her earliest recordings — recall the wisely weary lyrics of her early hit “Criminal.” On even the most intense moments of “Fetch,” her lyrics retain a playfulness that acts as a ballast, from her channeling a guy placating a group of women on the introduction of the relationship-ending preamble “Ladies,” to her turning Hurricane Gloria into the linchpin for a sardonic hymn on “Shameika,” to her playing with the leering phrase “nice rack” on “Rack of His.” (She’s talking about the type that holds guitars, although the wordplay doesn’t end there.) The arrangements, too, are full of unexpected, delightful moments — the title track’s loopy outro is accompanied by barking dogs and punctuated by a satisfied “yeah,” while the gliding piano line underscoring the lovers’ quarrel in “Under the Table” is split open by Apple sing-shouting “I would beg to disagree, but begging disagrees with me.” She’s detailing the absurdities and horrors of her public and private worlds while being very much a part of them.
“Fetch” closes with “On I Go,” a chant-driven stomp that recalls a heat-warped version of the “Idler Wheel” closing track “Hot Knife.” “On I go, not toward or away/Up until now it was day, next day/Up until now in a rush to prove/But now I only move to move," Apple intones again and again, as guitars squeal around her and a cello races to keep up. It’s an exclamation point at the end of a thrill ride, one that reminds the listener that the only way out — or at least closer to the light — is through.
Maura Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.