Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters has already endured a predictable backlash to its initial rapturous reception — a backlash led by a loud and peculiar subculture of internet trolls, all of them men, of course, who seem convinced that an album’s merit is determined by a complex calculus they’ve devised that plots its first-week sales against a Metacritic score — and has, at year’s end, re-emerged as one of the few broad consensus choices for this year’s truly great albums. Ultimately, it’s a record that is impossible to separate from its timeliness: 2020 deserves an album that drills into the very concept of failure and rages against every broken system that either sets individuals up to fail or enables predators to exploit their privileges. And who better than Apple, always one of pop music’s most shrewd observers of humanity at its worst and messiest, to outline our contemporary cultural failings? The specificity of Apple’s songwriting here is what makes it so effective. To choose the most salient example: Over the course of the last year, the #MeToo movement has been dismissed by many of its perpetrators and their apologists as creating a “cancel culture.” In exactly a dozen words on “For Her,” Apple explodes the power dynamics and hypocrisy that turned #MeToo into a cultural watershed and, rightly and righteously, re-centers the victims of sexual violence in the story: “You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in.” “For Her” may be the album’s most arresting track, but every song finds Apple similarly hell-bent on holding someone — sometimes, herself — accountable for their shortcomings. “Evil is a relay sport,” she spits on “Relay,” “When the one who’s burned turns to pass the torch.” And then she comprehensively dresses-down a dinner companion for insisting that she stay quiet after an insult on “Under the Table.” While Apple has stated that the song was inspired by an actual event in her personal life, there’s no way to distinguish whether the narrative is pure autobiography, a moment of corrective wish-fulfillment, or some combination thereof. Even “Shameika,” the album’s official single and another song Apple has claimed was sourced from an actual incident, never fully commits to who is the protagonist, the artist never elucidating whether Shameika’s statement —“Shameika said I had potential” — was meant as a compliment or a withering indictment. Even when Apple’s feelings about her subjects are complicated, her tone is one of liberation. Throughout Fetch the Bolt Cutters, Apple sings from a place of power and triumph. She wails and snarls and belts her way through these songs, refusing to apologize for pointing out anyone’s moral failings or for suggesting that, in a year as deeply fucked-up as this one, no one’s hands are entirely clean.
Published as part of Top 25 Albums of 2020 — 10-1.