sounds that say more than words

00:00 / 01:10

Fiona Apple's "I Want You to Love Me" played through over-ear headphones / dishes clanging in the kitchen / a laptop fan

     Since it was released on April 17th, I've been listening obsessively to Fiona Apple's new album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters. Though it's been nearly a decade since her last album release, Apple is not rusty; she has an astounding ability to create a sound that is both unique and cohesive, a lofty goal for an era in which so much new music sounds the same.

     Musicians tend to mimic other musicians, creating a self-referential loop as more and more artists attempt to mold their sound into what they know is safe, palatable, and relatively well-liked. Apple fears this path to homogeneity. In a recent New Yorker profile, she admits that she avoids listening to modern music for fear of outside influence. The result is a uniquely unplaceable sound. Like an anachronism in reverse, Apple’s work is a kind of alternate universe pop unshaped by the past thirty years, incorporating Brazilian bossa nova beats, jazz piano, and smoldering cabaret vocals twisted into her own genre. 


     In the album's opening track, "I Want You to Love Me," Apple's voice is raw with frustration as she sings:


I know none of this will matter in the long run /

but I know a sound is still a sound around no-one /

and while I’m in this body I want somebody to want /

and I want what I want and I want you /

to love me


     Though the song's title suggests a love-sick ballad, the reality is much more complex as Apple digs beneath the human desire for love, recognizing the triviality of romance while admitting that she herself falls into this endless cycle of wanting. Ultimately, though, it isn’t love that she wants — it’s the wanting itself. In the last line of the chorus, Apple's voice slips into the petulant, determined tone of a toddler's temper tantrum, indulging herself and the listener in the comforting delusion that we can act childishly, unreasonably, and others still will bend to our will. Her body speaks to her, offers the irrational sounds of loneliness and impatience, and Apple, in an act of kindness, listens.


     Each track on the album is lyrically and tonally distinct, though with a consistent thread of trancelike repetition. The album’s title track fades out as Apple whispers “fetch the bolt cutters” again and again over the sounds of her deep, hurried breathing and the arrhythmic barking of her two dogs. A syncopated bass drum imitates the thumping of a heart as we hear Apple finally acting on the escape that she justifies throughout the song, breaking out of old restraints and taking flight.


     The final track, "On I Go", takes this repetition to a new level as Apple repeats the same chorus fourteen times without a verse:


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


     Unlike the pulsing movement of "Fetch the Bolt Cutters", "On I Go" is focused and exact. There is no singing, only a measured chanting. Apple has always been vocal about her traumatic experiences as a woman. At age twelve, she was raped by a stranger in the stairwell to her apartment. Emerging in the music scene as a teenager in the '90s, she was early exposed to the manipulation of a male-dominated industry, including uncomfortable encounters with men later exposed during the #MeToo movement, as well as the sexist comments and mocking judgment encouraged by a life in the spotlight. The heavy percussion of "On I Go" evokes militaristic marches, bringing the album to a close with the understanding that in the face of hardship Apple, like women everywhere, faces a choice between resignation and endurance. "On I Go" illuminates her decision and acts as a mantra that encourages others to follow suit, gathering momentum for a new generation of activists influenced by Audre Lorde’s notions of self-care as an act of political warfare. Though it marks the end of the album, the easy confidence of "On I Go" gives the impression that Apple is far from finished. Instead, she is building an army, preparing for the known unknowns that are yet to come.