Fiona Apple’s Survival Guide to Isolation

Fetch the Bolt Cutters, the singer’s first album in eight years, argues that confinement can intensify one’s connection to the greater human whole.

Fiona Apple pictured in 2012
“I only move to move,” Apple sings, portraying constraints as freeing. (BEATRICE DE GEA / The New York T​imes)

“Happy quarantine,” Fiona Apple, the ferocious 42-year-old songwriter, said with a matter-of-fact raise of her eyebrows in a recent video message. “This time means nothing to me really, personally, because nothing’s changed.”

She doesn’t seem to be exaggerating. When Fiona Apple McAfee-Maggart was a teen singer on the cusp of fame in the ’90s, her mom suggested that her stage name be “Fiona Lone” because she just loved to be alone. With every sporadic interview she’s given in the past decade, Apple has appeared to become more deeply fortressed in her Los Angeles bungalow. Her 1996 hit, “Criminal,” returned to the spotlight because of a scene in the movie Hustlers last year. Apple didn’t go out to see it.

But the best proof of her reclusiveness is in her saw-toothed, percussive show tunes. She has snarled trespass warnings (in 1999: “Get gone!”), sloganeered for stasis (2005: “Keep us steady, steady going nowhere”), and interrogated agoraphobia (2012: “How can I ask anyone to love me when all I do is beg to be left alone?”). Now she’s kindly dropped her first album in eight years amid the coronavirus pandemic, despite hints that the original plan was a fall release. The record’s title, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, and sound—feverish, kitchen-sink jams—seem apt for this stay-indoors spring. “I’ve been in here too long,” she murmurs on the title track. Objects that could be pots and pans bang in the background. Dogs bark. She wants someone to bust her out. Who can’t relate?

A better question might be who dares relate? I recently had a moment of whiplash when revisiting her early song “Sullen Girl,” during which she sings, “Days like this, I don’t know what to do with myself / All day and all night, I wander the halls along the walls.” Great quarantine-core, right? The lyrics go on to indicate that the singer is listless because of trauma; Apple has said that it refers to a stranger raping her when she was 12. For the new album, she borrowed the phrase Fetch the bolt cutters from a scene in the drama series The Fall during which a sex-crimes investigator discovers a locked room where a woman has been tortured. Apple is evoking a specific, gendered kind of confinement, and maybe it’s wrong to compare it with not being able to go to karaoke bars anymore.

It’s long been common, listening to Apple, to experience such pangs of identification followed by prickles of unease. Her tumbled-out lyrics identify ex-boyfriends and bullies, and they paint vignettes that could be drawn only from the experience of a woman who’s been locked in a lifelong battle against the sexist label “ingenue.” Often what’s so stunning about her music is that it feels like a self-administered CT scan, from which diagnosing anyone else’s ailments would not only be futile but irresponsible. Right now especially, it’s clear that appropriation via metaphor is not always a victimless crime: It can scramble shared understandings of reality, inflating the frivolous and defanging the urgent. (Say it again: Social distancing is not just like prison.)

But also right now, it’s rarely been more necessary to vest expansive power in art and the experiences it documents. When nightmare scenarios transition to the waking world, stark fictions and knotty personal histories offer guidance less in the factual specifics than in their emotional terrain. Apple hasn’t just thought deeply about what it means to be alone—she’s thought about what it means to choose to be alone for protection, painful though it might be. To shy away from the universality of that theme risks treating her work as exhibitionism. It also risks contradicting her key insight: that surviving apartness means recognizing it as a shared experience.

One shock of isolation is the way it forces people into mental cul-de-sacs. Without places to go and people to see, many of us are spinning backward and inward, where we obsess over super-near spaces and sprawling memory troves. On Fetch the Bolt Cutters, Apple describes something akin to this sensation, but in an empowering way. “I spread like strawberries,” she barks, drill-sergeant-like, over subterranean bashing sounds. “I climb like peas and beans.” She’s portraying herself as a productive plant, growing without going anywhere. The song’s title, “Heavy Balloon,” recasts depression as something almost playful, to bat and swat at. There’s no shying away from the harsh, immobilizing reality of despair, but there’s also no sense of defeat.

The album, Apple’s fifth, follows in this same down-is-up approach, musically and emotionally. Defiance tussles with remorse. Reflection, via mantric repetition, becomes a game. Contradictions are left unresolved for anarchic thrills. It’s her messiest and wildest album, which is saying something after 2012’s brilliant The Idler Wheel… ditched studio orchestras for a frenzied duo of singer and drummer. Bolt Cutters returns to a fuller sound while maintaining Idler’s scratching-at-the-stucco feel. Layers of stuff pile onto stomping, polyphonic rhythms; eventually, most songs topple into noisy denouements. Apple, while remaining introspective, gazes outward for her most overtly political work yet. Yet her command of pure sound and sensation drives the show.

The piano on the opener, “I Want You to Love Me,” for example, is recorded in such a resonant manner that you can’t help but visualize her hands. The left one jabs low, percussive thuds; the right one darts with chords that swirl upward. Into the resulting reverie, Apple waxes existential, singing, “I know none of this will matter in the long run / But I know a sound is still a sound around no one.” Yet after that koan of self-sufficiency is a direct plea for help: “I want what I want / And I want you to love me.” The “you” is drawn out and raspy, and it gets more atonal every time she sings it. By the end of the song, she’s whimpering like a pet.

In that introduction lies the paradox of Apple’s alienation. She beats her own path and fences people out, and still, she hungers for others. Indeed, the cloister of Fetch the Bolt Cutters is somehow packed with visions of humans other than Apple. There’s Shameika, Apple’s intimidating middle-school classmate, who gets her due on the album’s magnificently thrashing second track. There are men who treat their own wives “like less than a guest,” or who kick Apple under the table during pretentious dinner parties. And there are women—“Ladies, ladies, ladies, ladies!” as Apple drawls with fake lasciviousness—struggling with the same social-sexual riddles that she has. From each story she extracts theories about her own failings and triumphs. No one is a rival so much as a fellow warrior, to whom extending empathy provides Apple with a helpful lesson. Jealousy and resentment, Apple says in various ways, are the true enemy.

Are these characters living, breathing people in Apple’s life? Most of her sketches are executed with a leer, suggesting distance. On “Newspaper,” she addresses the new girlfriend of her ex. The sad spectacle of seeing him mistreat her the way he mistreated Apple “makes me feel close to you / It’s not what it’s supposed to do,” she sings in a hypnotic, bluesy melody. The song’s title and noir feel hint that Apple is observing the relationships from afar, in paparazzi shots. Similarly, in “For Her”—a gutting, jagged choral sculpture—she trills out vividly feminist poetry inspired by other women’s #MeToo stories, including the one Christine Blasey Ford told on national TV. With fearsome urgency, Apple is reaching out to people whom she may know only through screens.

This act of reaching, of humanistic projection, ennobles Apple’s lonerism. As she’s long known—and as millions of cooped-up people are now learning—a retreat from the world can translate to a renewed, and ideally clarifying, obsession with that world. Is it not true that right now, as individual lives have gotten smaller, people are more attuned to the big picture? Happy hours are gone and press conferences of global consequence have flooded in. Casual acquaintances have disappeared; lasting friendships have rekindled from afar. To call these developments the silver linings to a crisis isn’t right. They are simply the way that people must cope with living apart. Apple, at least, seems to gain succor and creative inspiration from pining for only the most nourishing kind of connection. “I want you to use it!” she shouts on the opening song, presumably addressing her listeners. “Blast the music! Bang it, bite it, use it!”

Fetch the Bolt Cutters, accordingly, is an album for blasting-banging usage. If the sense of perfect composition that marked her old albums is not quite here, it’s been replaced by astonishingly vivacious moments, stories, and sounds. Left to her own devices, with what feels like endless time, Apple has rewritten her own biography in terms of a wider social struggle: a breakthrough enabled simply by the power of the mind. Yet also, she seems to say, music and life need not be quantified in terms of breakthroughs—narrative expansion, forward momentum—at all. In rippling chants on the closing track, “On I Go,” she revels in the way that she’s become untethered from any rat race: “Now / I only move to move.” To rethink the meaning of one’s confines is a crucial survival tactic, and collaboratively doing so might even be a way of thriving.