Decomposition and Breakdown: Fetch the Bolt Cutters by Fiona Apple

Fiona Apple’s newest Album Fetch the Bolt Cutters has been causing quite a stir in the popular music world and is proving to be a bit of an enigma for many folks. I’ve had enough folks request I shed some light on what’s going on that I figured it was worth doing a full breakdown of the album. We’ll be looking at everything: composition, lyrics, production, sound quality - the works. I’d encourage you to pop the album on in the background - perhaps indulging in the 24-bit Qobuz version - and listen along if you’re so inclined.

I mentioned some friends of mine had asked me to do a breakdown, and in this case breakdown is the perfect word, as the central concept Apple seems to be working with is breakdown or what I think of as a sort of textural ‘decomposition.’ The songs themselves aren’t actually particularly unusual in the individual phrases or meters, but the overarching forms often break from the strict verse-chorus-bridge forms that dominate popular songwriting.

Part 1: Breakdown
The first song on the album, ‘I Want You to Love Me,’ gives us an introduction to this idea in two important ways: textural variety and structure. There is an overlapping ‘relay’ race of sorts where a sound appears, then a different sound appears, and we never return directly to these motifs, but rather leap frog through a series of expansions on each motif. The opening sounds later morph into the cello line around 2:00 which then abruptly changes when the ‘drums’ proper come in. The very beginning of this song is actually laying down the rhythmic pulse of the piece, but sped up just a little and only in the high percussion parts. The rest of the song lacks much high percussion, because Apple has stripped it out and put it all at the beginning of the song. Speeding it up and then starting immediately on a slightly slower pulse gives the song the feeling of a ‘stumble’ into the album, a herky-jerkiness despite the relative smoothness of the performances in what is otherwise a very straightforwards 4/4 beat and four bar phrases. Similarly the piano harmonies remain largely the same throughout the song, the second motif of rising piano arpeggios give us a blueprint, but it also represents a deconstruction because we never hear that piano theme exactly the same way again, only parts that use similar textures or harmonic rhythm. It has been surgically scraped from the song and functions only as a skeleton or aural guidepost.

The result of this is that if we listen to each individual phrase we get memorable parts and we get a sense of building and repetition, the song certainly doesn’t sound random or disorganized. The piano lines when they return, develop and use downward motifs in the same harmonic pattern but inverted. There is a sense of a complete piece, but also a sort of sense of that we haven’t really had a conclusion, since the piece never truly returns to a familiar part with true repetition. I’d say this does a good job of propelling us into the rest of the album, giving us an outline of the kinds of structure we may expect to hear and also setting the scene for the ‘jerky’ feeling of breakage or unsettling that Apple conveys more later on in the album.

The second song begins with a piano ostinato that you could overlay with the percussion intro of the first song, though it is largely absent of cymbals until Apple says ‘crash cymbals’ and we are treated to exactly that. This song is largely a musical repetition, where pieces such as the background vocal ‘oohs,’ cymbals and other elements are slowly introduced over a two-part phrase which includes the piano and drums playing a faster part, and the slower percussion and noises only part where Fiona sings ‘Shameika said I had potential.’ The structure of the song is pretty simple, but this song sets the stage for the lyrical scenery of the album, by drawing our attention to Fiona’s voice and leaving totally quiet spaces where the only notable noise is Fiona speaking or singing, such as ‘that just made the bullies worse.’ Though the music is a simple two-part repetition, the lyrics now take on the form of leap-frog that the musical form of the first piece did. There is distinct repetition in this case, and various phrases are used to give the impression of a ‘chorus’ of sorts, though they really function more as goalposts in the form of the song, and indicate when Apple will repeat a lyric or move on to a new section. The presence of more repetition is a kind of ‘easing’ of the rhythmic stumble of the previous song and trades off last song’s clear but unrepeated gestures for a piano part that continues motorically even when there is sonic degradation and experimental noises happening. The piano part continues a bit like a broken record, continuing despite the chaos around it.

Apple’s lyrics contrasting her internal life and internal music or ‘holy trinity,’ with the external bullies parallels the men in her life and Shameika. This forecasts the lyrics in the rest of the album about her relationships with women, but it could also be heard as a lyrical reflection of the unrelenting, small but strong piano line that continues despite the crashing cymbals and distorted noises surrounding it. This isn’t as concrete as it will be later in the album, but the beginnings of it can be seen here.

‘Fetch the Bolt Cutters,’ the album’s title track strips back pretty much all of the previous musical and textural groundwork and focuses us squarely on the lyrics - ‘fetch the boltcutters, I’ve been in here too long.’ It’s a statement that has taken on new connotations in current times. The original lyrics seem to actually involve her relationship with the music industry, but I think for the most part, the key focus of that song is this one line. In focusing essentially the entire energy of a single song, Fiona is again practicing a kind of breakdown, and asking if she can strip an entire song down to nothing more than a single line. Whether it works or not will depend on the listener, but it’s a bold move, and cleverly provides us with another point of contrast.

What follows is a much more traditional song, with a sparse alliterative vocal opening in the style of Suzanne Vega’s ‘Tom’s Diner.’ We trade off the lyrical complexity of the previous songs for a simpler theme of standing one’s ground, and a fairly conventional song and structure, with little in the way of unusual or harsh textures. Fiona Apple clearly believed this was an important statement to make, but again this song functions in much the same way as the previous few songs - it has a very simple message to deliver and uses ample repetition and a trailing ending. This is a feature of the first half of the album, and makes it all subliminally blend together in a sense, whereas the songs in the second half use less repetition and resemble more conventional songs but also have more delineated beginnings and endings, almost giving what I might interpret as thematic and sonic boundaries. I could be reaching there, but I think the track orders mirrors the lyrical elements enough that it’s not a totally absurd interpretation. The next song is much like the title track, it’s catchy, has one line to deliver and the music sort of motorically mirrors the idea of a relay race.

Part 2: Naming the Problem
Moving on to the next goal post song, we return to an experimental sound with ‘Newspaper.’ This is the first song on the album focused specifically on Fiona’s relationship with another woman, and again fits the theme of decomposition, whereby the relationship between Fiona and her former lover deteriorates, but is slowly traded in for a relationship with another past lover of that same man. It’s a lyrical standout and one of the clearest declarations of the album’s themes till this point. Motivically the song is fairly simple, with lots of big drums and crashing percussion backing up the emotionally charged vocals.

Newspaper is really the turning point in the album, where we transition from an introduction to the lyrical problem - the need for fetching the boltcutters - to a solemn meditation on the relationships, sensation of being trapped and how to establish perhaps boundaries or how to breakdown and break out of the ‘revolving door that keeps turning out more good women like you.’ The sudden shift is marked by ‘Ladies’ which could almost be straight off one of Apple’s previous albums in its musical style. This is where Apple is comfortable doing confessional style songs, and acts as a kind of solidification of the scattered scraps or ideas, making sense of them as a commentary on her relationships with women and feeling trapped. Musically it’s one of the less flashy tracks on the album, but is perhaps clearest declaration of the core lyrical ‘problem’ Apple is facing.

Part 3: Recomposition from Decomposition
If ‘Newspaper’ is the thematic turning point of the album, ‘Heavy Balloon’ is the lyrical benchmark where Apple moves from meditating on the problem, to her lyrical ‘solution’ by ‘spreading like strawberries’ at the bottom of the metaphorical hole described in the first few songs. Musically we see this song take on the heavier sound of Newspaper and the most aggressive and experimental of the sounds. In Heavy Balloon around 1:20 into the song the cello from earlier in the album reappears, heavily filtered, and accompanied by Apple’s slowly building vocals, which move up by a very subtle half step into an open fourths harmony. This at first just sounds like a more open chord structure in an otherwise aggressive song, but I hear it actually as a very temporary key change which returns in the guitar, string and bell parts at the end of the song. This has the very subtle effect of lifting the mood ever so slightly, and mirroring how the lyrics find a bright spot, or at least some strength in the midst of the darkness that has permeated the album so far.

This transitions into the crashing harmonies and massively stacked vocals in ‘Cosmonauts.’ Fiona Apple loses none of her edge in the vocal delivery of this song, but the lyrics about being cosmonauts and the huge, almost orchestrally triumphant arrangement indicates a momentary celebration or at least exultant moment amidst the aggression and anger of the early songs and the melancholy of the middle of the album. All the song after this have a lot more top end and less filtering, and also more generally major and augmented-leaning harmonies and melodies that travel upward instead of relentlessly down. This all works to give songs like ‘For Her’ and openness and more uplifting feel, though they retain the raw production style of the rest of the Album.

Speaking of which, ‘For Her’ is perhaps the most musically engaging track on the entire album, with reused motifs and samples, sometimes doubling or halving the tempo to emphasize specific lyrics, but this time again with the more open, less-filtered bass drum samples of the previous tracks and wide vocal harmonies giving a feeling of total openness. By the time ‘Drumset’ rolls around, we have a positively bubbly feel, this album’s equivalent of a Bobby McFerrin feel-good tune, ironically set along to lyrics which are as sharp as the rest of the album, but with a vocal delivery that is less tense and more nonchalant than before, as the big tension of the album has been thematically resolved in a sense. The problems and cleanup remain, but Apple has struggled and come out at least alive and in charge on the other side.

For me, the album concludes nicely with ‘Drumset’ and ‘On I go’ doesn’t really work within the thematic flow of the album, either lyricall, production-wise or as a musical tidbit. It retains the more open sound, yet has aggressive production and lyrics that simply don’t hit as accessibly as the rest of the album, which is full of sharp clarity and biting lyrics. That said, I think the sort of theme of ‘decomposition’ or ‘breakdown’ themes are very clearly conveyed, and the album does something very interesting. It doesn’t repeat sectional material directly like some concept albums, where segments are lifted, rearranged and dropped into later songs. Instead she uses individual samples such as the kick drum, cymbal, vocal harmonies, piano and filtered cello and drops them into disparate songs, and as the album progresses, the way these are filtered and arranged becomes gradually more open as the lyrics progress from desperation and anger to melancholy to fierce reclamation and eventually self-assuredness.

Overall however, this feels like an album written by a songwriter experimenting with the boundaries of traditional songwriting, and it falls somewhere between an album of songs and a concept album. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of a great concept album because it’s not tightly integrated enough, but it isn’t tight enough for the songs to stand on their own, there really aren’t any singles on the album. In the end the defining feature of ‘Fetch the Bolt Cutters’ is that it lives on the margins as a pop album, which ends up being it’s greatest weakness and greatest strength. This fractured quality seems to be exactly what Fiona Apple is trying to achieve, and I’d say whether it works for you or not is what is ultimately artistically subjective about this album. You can’t really separate this flaw from the listening experience as a single album, and there aren’t any songs designed to standalone, so ultimately each individual listener has to confront the thematic and formal arrangement decisions made on the album and decide if they are effective. Lyrically this is an album full of gems and quirky but passionately delivered feelings, and one that feels genuinely passionate and personal, something which is hard to achieve and which makes Apple’s vocals the real star of the show. Ultimately, for me, it’s a flawed work, but one that uses its flaws to offer some genuine insight and poignant moments.

Verdict: Worth a listen.

BmacAD's picture

Miss his writing.