Release Date: June 19, 2012
There’s a palpable new awareness of Fiona Apple these days that started a while before an announcement came that new work from the singer/songwriter was imminent this year. It’s not a thing I can cite with facts and figures (I suppose I could scour the internet for time-stamped blog posts championing her work but bear with me here) but more of a gradual emergence taken from personal experience noticing more and more people regarding her music as not just “something they like” but something that’s actually artistically very important.
This attention is deserved to a degree — Apple’s second album “When the Pawn” was the absolute slam dunk and the pinnacle of her abilities as a lyricist, singer, and musician. Likewise for producer Jon Brion, the record being a high point of his career. However, it should be noted by all looking to canonize Apple the patron saint of piano-based music that “Tidal” is only half-brilliant and that “Extraordinary Machine,” while quite good, was a botched operation in its overworked Mike Elizondo reconstruction. Fortunately for Fiona, she has another chip in her corner for sainthood with “The Idler Wheel Is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do.”
To say “The Idler Wheel” is Apple’s best album since “When the Pawn” is nearly a backhanded compliment — the last decade produced a whopping one album from the artist. Regardless of scant output, this album is an excellent document of what beauty true introversion can produce. By far her most barren in terms of production, “The Idler Wheel” is the rawest record of her career, truly verifying her talents for all they’re worth. On “Regret,” Apple’s piano and vocal are accompanied only by sparse percussion (a common occurrence on the record) which makes her aching scream that spearheads the lyric “I ran out of white dove feathers…” rip through the song like a firm hand through paper. The fact that she’s using those feathers to “soak up the hot piss that comes from your mouth every time you address [her]” only accentuates the venomous tone even more.
A key element to where the album succeeds is its purity. On its winding opener “Every Single Night,” Apple seems to cringe in anger on certain lines (“open the rib is the shell”) like she just can’t stand the fight anymore. It feels natural, like you’re stepping right into her brain. On “Jonathan,” Apple’s ode to ex-boyfriend Jonathan Ames, she allows herself to be more vulnerable than ever before. She over shares on her post-relationship longing in a manner so public, only Nick Cave‘s pining for Polly Jean Harvey on “Black Hair” springs to mind when thinking of something as candid. You actually feel sorry for her, where as previous break-up songs like “Love Ridden” and “Parting Gift” seemed to show more of her resolve than self-pity.
Much like on her last two albums, that brand of Fiona Apple song gives “The Idler Wheel” its crowning achievement. On “Werewolf,” a ballad that jangles about with smirking analogies about sharks, chemicals, and the titular beast, Apple twirls her voice around to great affect, her alliteration on the lyric “But I’m a chemical, too, inevitable/You and me would mix” sounding as if the pain from that realization is just dawning upon her at that moment. Her summation, “Nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key,” is just another retelling of the adage of pain making great art, but she has a way of making it sound fresh again. The juxtaposition of the kids playing outside in its final chorus also elevates the song to a level where the carefree joys of the past reflect on adult anguish.
Chances are that the growing Fiona fan population were going to devour whatever she threw at us with this long-awaited comeback but it’s very fortuitous that this ended up being the record. “The Idler Wheel” neither appeases nor does it look to be needlessly difficult. It is a record that feels wholly from the gut which is all we could hope for from such a passionate artist. At 42 minutes, that old feeling of daydreaming about what else could be up her sleeve for the future is already starting to set in as the familiarity of these songs take hold, but it really would be a falsehood to claim that this was not worth the wait.
Fiona Apple — “Every Single Night”