Complicated only begins to describe the enigmatic but extraordinarily gifted and daring Fiona Apple. The angst-ridden singer-songwriter is fragile and tough. During interviews, Apple has been surprisingly revealing, yet she becomes Johnny Carson reclusive in between albums while retreating to her Venice Beach, California, home.
Apple, 42, is akin to a beautiful, high-maintenance girlfriend who can be frustrating since she’s not often accessible or operates under a separate set of rules. However, when you’re in her presence, all is forgotten and forgiven. “Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” which drops today, is Apple’s first album in eight years.
It takes a few spins, like her two prior releases, to fully digest and appreciate much of “Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” which was named after a line uttered by actress Gillian Anderson in the BBC drama “The Fall.” However, there are a pair of exceptions. “I Want You to Love Me,” which Apple has played live since 2013, is an instant classic. The song is gorgeous, infectious and features Apple’s best-ever vocal.
“I Want You to Love Me” is warm and deep, and it builds toward a welcome end. The piano line from “Shameka” drives the wonderfully left-of-center song. The long-awaited release is a percussive work out. Apple, bassist Sebastian Steinberg and drummer Amy Aileen Wood are perfectly in sync throughout the 10 tracks.
The title cut is so overwritten that it could appear on an early Bruce Springsteen album. If I could play the role of producer Rick Rubin, I would love to hear the Boss cover the tune. The fiery “Under the Table” is a #MeToo anthem. After a couple of plays, such tracks as “Heavy Balloon” and “Cosmonauts,” with a Soul Coughing-esque bass line from Steinberg, who is the master of the bottom end, become favorites.
“Bolt Cutters” is just Apple’s fourth album since 1999. For much of this century Apple has been MIA. Such long breaks are often viewed as career suicide by the music industry, well, when there was a music industry. However, Apple has never abided by the rules, which is oddly part of her appeal.
Apple’s career is almost reminiscent of the classic “Seinfeld” episode when George opts to make the opposite decision. There is never a timetable for one of her albums. Apple decides to write and record when she’s moved. It wasn’t quite evident how different Apple was from the start of her career nearly a quarter century ago when she released her debut album “Tidal” in 1996.
The 16-year old Apple was precocious in the studio and during interviews. The daughter of a pair of entertainers was composed during our chat. Her smoky and supple voice belied her teenage years. Her early songs are confessional and catchy. Such beguiling singles as “Shadowboxer” and “Criminal” landed on the charts.
A number of lazy scribes compared Apple to Tori Amos, but the former is deeper, darker and more sophisticated than the latter. Unlike the Lilith Fair generation, Apple took more chances with the release of each of her following albums. “When the Pawn,” her 1999 follow-up, is the start of a 90-word poem. How’s that for an album title? The hook-laden “Fast As You Can” is arguably the catchiest song of her fascinating career. The collection of quirky songs proved that her talent caught up with her ambition.
2005’s “Extraordinary Machine” is a jaw-dropping achievement. Her musical soulmate Jon Brion once again produced, and he enabled the idiosyncratic Apple to become more accessible. “Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song),” “Better Version of Me” and “Get Him Back” are thoughtful pieces of art, which became addictive after experiencing the material live.
Apple was at her best during the “Extraordinary Machine” tour. I caught four of the shows, and Apple was a confident force behind the piano. There have been occasions when Apple marched off the stage due to sound issues or when fans wouldn’t stop talking during her tour in 2000. However, Apple wouldn’t let anything stand in her way throughout her powerful “Extraordinary Machine” performances.
During an Atlantic City concert 14 years ago Apple was interrupted halfway through the show by a guest who obviously received a comp ticket courtesy of the casino.
“You want me to what?” Apple said. “You want me hurry the bleep up. Well, bleep you. Get the bleep out of here. I’m not going to hurry my show up for you, bleep.” Not only did Apple display grace under pressure, but she also delivered a knock out blow to an inebriated fool who failed to respect the boundary between performer and fan. Apple finished off a stellar set.
What was impressive in retrospect was that Apple, unlike most of her peers, couldn’t care less about offending fans. Her old school approach is appreciated. It was great to see that she was finally unflappable, but I should have figured that out courtesy of an encounter we had three months earlier, also in Atlantic City.
The producer of a VH1 special for Elvis Costello selected Apple, Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong and Death Cab for Cutie to perform with the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer. Apple rendered a pretty version of “I Want You” with Costello. It couldn’t have been easy since Apple idolizes the cerebral Rock and Roll Hall of Famer.
My daughter, Jillian, who was 7 at the time, was obsessed with Apple. We caught the show. There was a lavish post-show party at the penthouse of the Trump Taj Mahal, which hosted the event. When Jillian heard about the soiree, her eyes lit up.
A gatekeeper said there was no way a kid could enter, but a publicist twisted his arm and noted that the bar was upstairs in the loft. I explained to my daughter that the performers often don’t turn up at such parties even though it’s in their honor. Costello proved me correct since he opted to hang elsewhere.
Jillian stayed downstairs with her mother. Sitting across from her was Armstrong’s then-prepubescent sons with their parents. As I was swilling a cocktail, I noticed Apple hit the bar to thank some of the producers. However, she left the scene quickly. I felt sheepish chasing after her down a set of spiral stairs.
“Fiona, my young daughter is a big fan and would love to meet you if you have 5 seconds to spare.”
I had no idea how Apple would react to my request. I was preparing for a volatile response when she scrunched up her face, and her big blue eyes narrowed.
“You mean Jillian?” Apple said. “I was talking to her for a few minutes. I told her how nervous I was performing with Elvis.”
I asked Apple if she would mind posing for a picture with Jillian. The three of us walked into a vacant dining room, and the experience turned into a full-blown photo session. Apple also signed a copy of “Extraordinary Machine” for my daughter.
The conversation continued, and Apple inspired Jillian to play the piano and sing, which is what she did throughout high school. Jillian, who is studying communications in college in New York, hopes to work in music management or publicity. Apple encouraged her to dream big.
Apple has led by example. Her 2012 album, “The Idler Wheel,” is a spare, poignant and at-times hypnotic work.
Apple hasn’t been prolific, but she’s been very consistent. The bar remains high with every release, and that continues to be so with “Fetch the Bolt Cutters.”
Welcome back, Fiona.