“I Want You to Love Me,” the opening track of Fetch the Bolt Cutters, Fiona Apple’s fifth studio album, begins with a digital fake out. A chintzy drum machine and minimalist keyboard line take up the first twenty or so seconds of the song’s runtime before making way for some cascading piano notes and Apple’s aching, yearning story of romantic and sexual desire. It’s one of the better Side A, Track 1’s of the last few years, and the way it descends from composed piano pop, to something rawer and angrier before finally unraveling into something that sounds like a combination orgasm/mental breakdown perfectly whets your appetite for the rest of the album. The first release from the reclusive singer/songwriter in almost eight years, Fetch the Bolt Cutters has set the music press ablaze, becoming the first album to receive a perfect 10.0 score from Pitchfork since Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy did the same in 2010. Praise for Fetch the Bolt Cutters has been so universal that it currently stands as the highest rated album of all time on review aggregator Metacritic, ahead of other modern classics like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and DAMN., D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, and Beyonce’s Lemonade. “Instant classic” has become a cliche, but I don’t know there’s any other way to describe Fetch the Bolt Cutters — based on the critical response alone, this is an album that will be talked about for a long, long time.
Apple’s talent as a singer, songwriter, and composer are self-evident, so it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that people are digging Fetch the Bolt Cutters. But seeing as how little it shares with the most vaunted music of the last ten years, I was still caught a little off guard by the effusiveness of its reviews. Fetch the Bolt Cutters shares little, if anything with hip-hop, electronica, and modern maximalist pop, genres that have made the biggest critical gains over the past ten years; in fact its reliance on instruments like piano and standup bass make it feel almost pointedly unhip. It wouldn’t feel odd to me if a jaded teen saw Apple sitting behind a piano and immediately slotted her in next to Norah Jones, Sara Bareilles, or any of the other ivory-tickling women who padded adult alternative radio playlists and your mother’s CD collection for the past ten years. They would be wrong for not realizing that Apple takes these elements, puts them in a box, shakes that box up, throws it off a cliff, and then kicks it all the way home to craft a sound that’s always felt unique, but I could see why they would reach such a conclusion. And it has so little to do with the kind of music that’s been held up as the most “important” in the past few years that I could also see it being written off as irrelevant to the larger cultural landschape. Don’t get me wrong, she’s always been a critical darling, but what is it this time and place that has led Fetch the Bolt Cutters to be so adored?
To find the answer to that question, let’s take a look at a few other trends and high profile releases from the last five years. In his now landmark piece “Tame Impala, Chillwave, and Other Dispatches from the Vibe Generation,” Larry Fitzmaurice highlighted and explained the popularity of alternative music that featured “an increased embrace of sampling and electronics, a de-emphasizing of guitars, a sonic approach that favored tactile sensuality rather than the bookish sensibilities that pervade 2000s alternative music, and an unabashed love of all things retro.” Fitzmaurice argued that this music appealed to a generation of people who “take drugs,” “spend like crazy,” “open [their] hearts and minds as widely as possible to all non-hateful viewpoints and lifestyles,” and “take more drugs.” Fitzmaurice argues that his (and I guess, my) generation do such things because they’re “not so much seeking answers as…looking for ways to feel something else, to escape the near-constant horror that is public and private life in 2015.”1If only they knew what was in store for them a year later…
The end result is the popularity of chillwave mainstays like Toro Y Moi, Washed Out, and Neon Indian, as well as indie rock artists who embraced electronic music and 80s nostalgia like M83, The War on Drugs and, most importantly for this article, Tame Impala.
Fitzmaurice reserves special praise for Tame Impala’s 2015 release Currents, which saw the Australian psych rock project trade in its guitars for keyboards and release “gorgeously textured soundscapes that owed as much to modern R&B as they did to the expensive luxuries of soft rock.” Fitzmaurice lauds Currents for its emotionally intimate lyrics, “stuttering beats,” and “motorik fantasias,” going on to describe the album as sounding like “modernity — bright and nearly monolithic, a gigantic nervous system encased in a protective cell phone case big enough that it’d crush an entire city if it toppled over.”
I don’t know that I like Currents quite that much, but in terms of sheer longevity alone, it stands out as the apotheosis of the vibey mindset celebrated by Fitzmaurice. It not only transcended genre lines by having tracks covered by Rihanna and featured on Donald Glover’s hip-hop focused TV dramedy Atlanta, but it also gave the modern music world one of its rarest sights: an ostensible rock artist selling out massive arenas and headlining major festivals like Coachella. After the release of Currents, Tame Impala mastermind Kevin Parker became a bona fide star, collaborating with Mark Ronson and Camilla Cabello and even producing a track on Travis Scott’s multi-platinum psych-rap album Astroworld. These high profile cameos and Parker’s reclusiveness ratcheted up anticipation for 2020’s The Slow Rush, Tame Impala’s fourth studio album. This excitement culminated in a splashy Billboard cover story in which Parker declared, to the delight of pop fans and lament of rock fans, that he wanted to become a Max Martin style super-producer, seemingly aligning himself with the dreamy, sugary sounds that came to dominate the 2010s, and setting the stage for what had the potential to be his biggest record yet.
It feels like eons ago at this point, but The Slow Rush was actually released this Valentine’s Day — in other words, about three months ago. And while its trippy, festival ready synths and stretched out runtimes make it feel like another win for the Vibe Generation, it’s hard not to hear a bit of exhaustion from Parker in both his music and his lyrics. His high-pitched vocals feel overwhelmed at points by the swirling instrumentals, and the throbbing, at times gritty low end that defined Currents is softened as well, making some of The Slow Rush’s tracks feel wispy, and trying to find your aural bearings in the thick of all these soupy sounds can feel like grasping at running water.
But perhaps the most striking change made by Parker is the change in perspective of his lyrics, which go from being burrowed deep inside his own head to addressing a significant other in varying states of a relationship’s decay. The romanticization of introspection, escapism, and nostalgia that was ascendant in the 2010s, and that Fitzmaurice’s article even gets wrapped up in, is no longer seen as a viable option by Parker. “Lost in Yesterday” identifies reminiscence as a crutch — “And you’re gonna have it let it go someday/You keep picking it up like Groundhog Day,” Parker sings, before concluding “it has to be lost to yesterday,” revealing the song’s title as not a lament of a past love or life, but as the preferred state of old behaviors. “It Might Be Time” sees him realize his mortality and the inevitable obsolescence of youthful hedonism in the most straightforward terms possible (“It might be time to face it/You ain’t as young as you used to be”), while “Borderline” reads like Parker’s mind racing as the numbing drugs he’s been using to distract himself from his troubles begins to wear off, leading to a line of anxiety inducing questions (“Will I be known and loved?/Is there one that I trust?”) that become impossible to ignore in his sobered up state. These three tracks read almost like a past, present, future sequence for a festival hopping, pill popping Millennial falling back to Earth and realizing that they actually have to confront their own problems and those of the world around them — making it impossible, almost irresponsible, to chase the feeling of “something else” that Fitzmaurice argues that they’re wont to do.
Tame Impala wasn’t the only artist to interrogate the Millennial desire for transcendence and then concede to its limits in 2020. Grimes’ Miss Anthropocene, which was released a week after The Slow Rush, is, according to Claire Boucher (Grimes’s real name), “A concept album about the anthropomorphic Goddess of Climate change,” with each song acting as “a different embodiment of human extinction as depicted through Pop star Demonology.” Trying to interpret that statement may be a fool’s errand, but it feels somewhat consistent with Boucher’s predilection for the synthetic and the transformative, a tendency that runs parallel to the warm escapism of Tame Impala and other vibronauts. She’s a true scion of the digital age — rather than escape her surroundings, she tries to shape them and redefine and reinvent herself through her album artwork as an anime character, a 3D model, or, by singing from the perspective of an angry Earth goddess, into something entirely inhuman. This drive to transcend mere flesh and blood culminated with “We Appreciate Power,” a punishing, Nine Inch Nails indebted rocker that seems to advocate for a kind of forced singularity. “Elevate the human race/Putting makeup on my face,” Boucher sings before ensuring us that “AI will reward us when it reigns” and that “simulation is our future,” in between asking what it will take for us to capitulate. The confidence Boucher seems to have in this techno-fascist future becomes all the more concerning when you remember that she’s dating (and recently gave birth to the child of) Elon Musk, but it’s just another, more Redditized version of the drive to “feel something else” described by Fitzmaurice. For Grimes, uploading your consciousness into a computer isn’t just a survival tactic, it’s also a coping mechanism. What better way to avoid negative human emotions than to become something other than human?
But in time, Grimes became just as skeptical about her methods of escape as Parker. Blurry headrush “4ÆM” acts as a sonic representation of the inevitable “unraveling” and “falling down” that comes after a late night out (and rather presciently predicts ”You’re gonna get sick/You don’t know when”), and the only English words spoken in the 潘PAN assisted “Darkseid” is “Unrest is in our soul/We don’t move our bodies anymore.” But the real kicker, the high point in the album but the low point for Grimes’ techno fantasies, is “Delete Forever.” Grimes’ rare acoustic-based song, “Delete Forever” sees Boucher singing from the perspective of a junkie on the cusp of experiencing “permanent blue” after doing every drug under the sun (or, as Boucher poetically puts it, having “more lines on the mirror than a sonnet”). It’s not just that the drugs are wearing off like they did in Parker’s songs — they’re actively contributing to this character’s destruction. And the most chilling detail of all is their admission that such a demise might have been part of the plan after all, challenging the listener to “try to tell me now that I don’t want it.”
At first glance, Tame Impala and Grimes’ exploration of these themes should make their music feel timeless, even prescient. Expressing unease and pessimism through a festival or club ready song isn’t exactly a new trick, but it is a good way to help ensure that when we listen to The Slow Rush and Miss Anthropocene 20 years from now, we won’t be hearing the last gasps of two of the 2010s’ biggest artists recycling their old sounds on the cusp of a new decade. And yet, recent events have made each of these albums’ reliance on big, crowd pleasing electronics feel out of step, even obsolete with the current mood of the country. Nobody is going to a festival and going out dancing anytime soon, and try as Parker and Boucher might to ground their otherwise wispy and ethereal music, it just doesn’t sound as good while we try to prevent ourselves from going crazy as we hole ourselves up in our apartments and try to outlast the coronavirus. Tame Impala were writing escapist music aware of its limits, but there’s no level of self-awareness that could make it sound good for our current moment. And with other albums being delayed, it seems like other artists have come to realize that trying to match our current moment is a futile effort.
And then came Fetch the Bolt Cutters, an album almost tailor-made for our new world of isolation and social distancing. Apple recorded most of the album at her Venice Beach, California home, where she assembled a “percussion orchestra” of household items (which ranged from the mundane, like pots and pans, to the macabre, like her late dog Janet’s bones) to act as her rhythm section. The result is a record that sounds raw, claustrophobic, and more than a little stir-crazy, the aural equivalent of a musician banging their head against a wall. Apple digs deep vocally as well, reaching a degree of grit and at times almost unhinged-ness that her earlier work lacked; her yelps, growls, and bellows are tangible enough to make your own throat feel scratchy by proxy. From a resources perspective, almost any of us could have recorded this album in the two plus months we’ve been sheltering in place; the only thing preventing us from doing so is that we don’t have Apple’s innate talent.
The unvarnished, homemade feel of the record is backed up by strikingly physical lyrical imagery. “I Want You to Love Me” sees Apple asking her would be beau to “bang it, bite it, bruise it” and “Shameika,” the following track, evocatively describes the way Apple would “crush the leaves like they had fallen from dead trees/just for me” and slap her leg with a riding crop on her way to school to make herself look tough.2No, I don’t know where a school aged child would find a riding crop, or how they would even know what one is, for that matter. Elsewhere, she dares her date to kick her under the table on, uh, “Under the Table,” to get her to stop arguing with someone else at a dinner she doesn’t want to go to, and, in her most striking bit of imagery, refers to a rack of guitars on a gentleman friend’s wall as “lined up like eager fillies/Outstretched like legs of Rockettes” on “Rack of His.” She almost sounds jealous of them, hoping the man in question will “wail” on her like he does the instruments, before being disappointed by his more conservative lovemaking (or at least, that’s what I think “but it was just a coochie-coo-coo” means). What makes these lyrics stand out is that they see Apple yearning, begging, almost, for any kind of human contact, for any kind of physical sensation outside of what she can produce herself — the reverse of Tame Impala and Grimes’ escapist and transformative fantasies, and a feeling that probably feels familiar to all of us right now.
Apple expresses a similar longing for nature as well. In “Heavy Balloon,” she claims to “spread like strawberries” and “climb like peas and beans,” while in “I Want You to Love Me” she “moves with the trees/In the breeze.” The rush of people to California’s beaches and New York’s parks after some restrictions on public gatherings were eased in those states seem to indicate that we as a society are similarly wistful for the natural world, and the growing and spreading imagery used by Apple refer to processes that may feel stunted in the era of shelter-in-place. We feel cramped, unable to stretch and grow and feel the cool grass under us, unable to be one with the natural world. We may have written these feelings off as hippy dippy nonsense in the pre-COVID-19 era and sought refuge in the synthetic instead, but now that all we can do is retreat inside our devices, we’re desperately seeking an alternative. We, in many, ways, want to fetch the bolt cutters and break out of our quarantine cages.
Fetch the Bolt Cutters covers a litany of themes across its 13 tracks — namely the way Apple has felt emotionally mistreated by men, and how such mistreatment has affected her relationships with women. But the common through line of all of those songs is a yearning to lean into connection, acknowledging and absorbing all of its rough edges. This runs counter to the vibey strategy pursued by Tame Impala, Grimes, and their peers, who retreated into warm electronic sounds as if into the womb, and whose emotional analysis was more inward looking. It’s not that Apple doesn’t have a sense of self or isn’t interested in self-examination, it’s just that she’s moved on to better things and other needs. And on Fetch the Bolt Cutters, she needs other people — needs to touch them and feel them the same way she feels all the plastic, wooden, and metal things sitting around her house; the same way you can feel her pounded out piano notes, improvised percussion, woody bass, and her unvarnished vocals. If the 2010s were defined by a generation trying to “feel something else,” Apple is scoffing at their pickiness and hoping just to feel anything at all. Typical, modern day to day life provides us with an excess of humanity, but now that we’re siloed off from one another, we can’t help but claw at the walls like Apple in the hope that someone will give us something as small and spiteful as a quick kick in the shins. Really, it’d almost be troubling if this album wasn’t universally praised.
So does the rapturous response to Fetch the Bolt Cutters represent the end of electronic incursions into rock and pop and the rise of a new, analog-based movement? We may not get the answer to that question for a few years, and even if we do, it’s not like the world’s biggest pop stars will take after Apple and start banging on the bones of their dead pets instead of teaming up with technologically inclined super producers. But the general “vibeyness” that has so dominated music for the past ten years feels like it may be on the outs, because there’s no use distracting ourselves from life’s harsh realities anymore. Many of us have never been so aware of our own mortality and the fragile security modern society provided us with — we can’t not pay attention to the physical world around us. If the coronavirus pandemic ends up facilitating a full fledged cultural reset, then Felt the Bolt Cutters could be its first chapter. And if we’re going to rewrite the musical landscape from scratch, we could do a lot worse.