After a seven-year hiatus Fiona Apple has vigorously returned with her new album ‘The Idler Wheel Is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do’, or for those with less time on their hands ‘The Idler Wheel’. The title alone indicates the deeply contemplative and analytical nature of the album, something that is both its making and its mark of death for commercial success. Yet there is little doubt to whether Apple ruminates over the commercial appeal of her music, considering her wayward media image and slow, measured approach towards album-making. As ‘The Idler Wheel’ illustrates, Apple’s music is an introspective experience turned outwards towards an audience, it is a shared catharsis that often makes the listener feel as though you are sitting beside Apple on the psychiatrist’s couch, or reading her scrambled journal entries made late at night in a fit of expression.
Each song on ‘The Idler Wheel’ is unequivocally sensual, yet not in the sexual, attractive way often associated with the word, but rather more base and animalistic. The listener is inflicted by a cacophony of sounds from low drumbeats, eerie, stilted piano notes, crunching gravel and ripping duct tape. Apple makes the most of associative sounds to call to mind a litany of experiences. Above all else is Apple’s alto voice which ranges from vulnerable, shaky whispers to demanding wails. In the opening song ‘Every Single Night’ she chants ‘I just wanna feel everything’ in a shuddering soft voice while in ‘Daredevil’ we hear her bellow out the line ‘Look at me [x4]/ I’m all the fishes in the sea’. In both her moments of defenceless exposure and exaggerated assailment, there is a childlike quality prevalent in many of the songs. In ‘Valentine’ she admits ‘I stand no chance of growing up’. Her broody exasperation is captured in ‘Jonathon’ as she quivers out defensively ‘I don’t want to talk about anything’. Yet in a strange contrast that befits the enigmatic Fiona Apple, there is a controlled, experienced edge to ‘The Idler Wheel’ which drives along its maddeningly raw content. For one, the album’s backdrop is the exploration of Apple’s past relationships. Musically, Apple pushes the experimental jazz sound and the array of outlandish instruments into something seamless. It is in essence a work of controlled madness. Apple willingly unleashes her vulnerability to the point where it feels she has plunged into her subconscious.
Though undoubtedly hauntingly beautiful, Apple’s album will be difficult to listen through for many, as her constant neurosis is reflected with painful honesty in both its lyrics and music. This is highlighted in songs such as ‘Every Single Night’ in which she states ‘every single night’s a fight with my brain’, with the word brain drawn out and repeated as if on a loop. There will always be an initial flinch away from such exposure, and Apple does essentially defrock herself in ‘The Idler Wheel’. Music also mirrors the lyrical message in other songs through frenzied howls, repetition and bending of notes and layered harmonies. Run-on sentences escalate the tension, most notably in ‘Jonathon’ and ‘Hot knife’. It is music with no grammar, or at least not the recognizable, traditional form.
While there is a deeply painful register in most of the songs, it is often accompanied by dark humour. In ‘Werewolf’ she proclaims ‘We are like a wishing well and a bolt of electricity / We can still support each other / All we gotta do is avoid each other’ while in ‘Left Alone’ she jokingly recollects her post break-up days spent trying to ‘cultivate a callus’. In some cases, it seethes, hisses and bellows out laughter hysterically. Each lyric is handled with a playful dexterity, even in its most serious critical moments, that is comparable to the verboseness of Dylan. Each word, each syllable, is dissected through her varying inflections, thereby creating a perfectly unpredictable experience for the listener. The album’s final song, ‘Hot Knife’, is a turn towards something more progressive, yet with a sinister edge of course. Moving on from reflection on past relationships, Apple contemplates a new, explosively sexual relationship, chanting ‘If I’m butter/Then he’s a hot knife’.
Despite its often agonizing self-reflection, Fiona Apple’s new album is proof that she possesses something which every great artist can present- a bundle of contradictions. Her willingness to challenge the vocal range is something which only enhances the power of each song, and is a challenge undertaken by few female artists such as Tori Amos, Kate Bush and to an extent the newcomer Marina and the Diamonds. Though the ominous plonking piano notes were present in Apple’s early ‘Criminal’, it is clear she has greatly developed since her more straightforward popish days. With the help of Charley Drayton, Maude Maggart and Sebastian Steinberg, Apple has produced a very distinctive and consuming record which deserves to be repeatedly listened to.