Physical jolt in a digital world

Chris Richards

THE WASHINGTON POST – Last week, a new Fiona Apple album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, came whooshing into the world like a bright gust of reality, the music itself triggering that rare, this-is-actually-happening sensation that we usually only feel in delivery rooms, car accidents, national elections, the last 30 seconds of NBA Finals games and other occasions where the river of time dramatically crooks in a new direction.

Why do Apple’s new songs feel so real? Because they’re made out of real moments. Highly percussive and deeply expressive, nearly every sound on Fetch the Bolt Cutters was either struck or sung into physical existence, resulting in a 21st century Gesamtkunstwerk of tactile thwacks and la-la-la. This music had to be imagined, but more importantly, it had to occur.

It’s an intense listening expe-rience drawn from intense life experience, but you don’t need to be fluent in the decades-long Fiona Apple discourse to hear that she’s processing a lifetime of insults and injustices – the kind that come with being a woman in America, a celebrity in the information age and both at the same time (in that order).

Apple takes us all the way back to the beginning with Shameika, zig-zagging around the keys of her piano while tallying the formative mercies and cruelties dished out by the other kids who populated her childhood.

Rough scene, but it’s the song’s lonesome opening lines that reveal the most: “I used to walk down the streets on my way to school, grinding my teeth to a rhythm invisible,” she sings, phrasing the melody with the floppiness of a child’s reluctant footsteps. “I used my feet to crush dead leaves like they had fallen from trees just for me, just to be crash cymbals.”

Fiona Apple released her long awaited album Fetch the Bolt Cutters on April 17. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

What a trip. Apple has been trying to transform this pressure into music – with all of her being, from teeth to toes – for more than 30 years. Now here it is.

Much of Fetch The Bolt Cutters was recorded inside Apple’s California home, and you can hear it every time the music’s handmade, hand-played sounds go bouncing off the drywall. The acoustics feel entirely purposeful, giving the songs an intimacy that’s more forthright than confessional.

Whether Apple is mumbling a melody under her breath or peeling a snarl off the back of her throat, we’re never stealing glimpses into her mind. She has us inside the house with her.

On the album’s title track, some dogs in the adjoining room bark intermittently, as if the FedEx truck has just pulled up across the street and Apple has refused to let reality spoil a good take.

But even inside these four walls, cosmic forces still apply. Some of the best cuts on Fetch the Bolt Cutters make explicit lyrical references to gravity, reinforcing the idea that this album was made to be felt physically and completely.

The groove of Heavy Balloon feels as crushing as everything that’s ever weighed on Apple’s mind. “People like us get so heavy and so lost sometimes,” she sings. “You get dragged down, down to the same spot enough times in a row, the bottom begins to feel like the only safe place that you know.”

Apple knows that the lives we’re born into can make our shared world feel very different. Then comes the refrain, a blast of mutated hippy language delivered in a gravity defying, blood-stopping growl: “I spread like strawberries, I climb like peas and beans!”

As spectacularly as that couplet lands, the meaning of Apple’s music can’t be reduced to its lyrics, especially when her wisest lines keep pointing us back toward sound.

During the album-opening rush of I Want You To Love Me, her words suggest we’re all bound by our need to be loved, and later, by death. “I know when I go, all my particles disband and disperse, and I’ll be back in the pulse,” she sings, shooting the word “pulse” from her mouth as if trying to blast a hole through the fabric of reality. She’s following that invisible rhythm again, and she wants us to hear it, too.