Album Review: Fiona Apple, ‘The Idler Wheel…’
Apple’s latest release, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do, is out today, June 19, after a seven-year hiatus—and that seven years is completely understandable, because the result is completely flooring, especially after a few listens. The album is heavy, but it’s also a grower—so get ready to spend some time taking it all in.
Apple’s previous album, Extraordinary Machine, came six years after her sophomore, When the Pawn…, to rave reviews in 2005 (though it was originally planned for release earlier, the album saw a complete overhaul in production). Between her 1996 debut, Tidal, and 2005’sMachine, Apple went through a very noticeable style shift, leaning away from the alternative rock of the mid-90s towards more of a jazz and baroque-pop feel.
With her latest release, Apple has turned the tables once more and taken a somewhat experimental and acoustic approach to her songs, using mostly voice and piano with light percussion. Moreover, her usual confessional lyrics are pushed to the brink, and The Idler Wheel… literally becomes a trip through her tortured brain.
Opening with the lullaby-like first single “Every Single Night,” it is evident that this album is very deep and personal, not necessarily meant for public consumption yet out there for us to take in. Already, Apple confesses the turmoil that haunts her thoughts: “Every single night’s a fight with my brain,” yet that’s alright, because, “I just want to feel everything.” The accompanying video is equally heavy and filled with abstract, nightmarish imagery that you really just have to see—it’s impossible to describe:
The second track, “Daredevil,” at first harkens back to the simple bass line of “Extraordinary Machine” but becomes more of a march with its percussion. She continues her confessions, begging the listener, “Don’t let me ruin me / I may need a chaperone.” Then comes the melancholy, jazzy love song “Valentine.” With lyrics like, “You didn’t see my valentine / I sent it via pantomime / While you were watching someone else / I stared at you and cut myself,” the pain in her words is clear. Yet, she sings that she is still in love—perhaps because she can’t leave the situation she’s in.
The percussion in “Jonathan” is reminiscent of a train chugging along the tracks, as Apple sings, “Jonathan, call again / Take me to Coney Island / Take me on the train.” The dissonant piano gives the image of a broken-down carnival, much like the feel of old Coney Island. The song is almost definitely a plea to her former boyfriend, writer/actor Jonathan Ames, whom she dated from 2003 to 2007.
One of the standout tracks is the manic yet poignant “Left Alone,” in which Apple poses the question, “How can I ask anyone to love me / When all I do is beg to be left alone?” Here, she yet again judges herself harshly, saying that she is “too hard to know” and revealing that she doesn’t “cry when I’m sad anymore.” It’s rare to find an artist that can be so blunt about their thoughts of themselves. The sadness is completely audible in her voice over the two-line chorus.
“Werewolf” is a song of simple analogies, comparing a man to things like a werewolf or shark—only to have Apple then blame herself for all of his faults and the pain he caused. But then with “Periphery,” she seems to backtrack a bit and decides that she simply doesn’t care about these men who let her down, singing, “I don’t even like you anymore at all.”
Next is another standout, “Regret,” which feels like the most relatable track on the album—and it’s also probably the biggest tear-jerker. This slow, waltz-like lament of a song has lyrics that can fit in with the end of many relationships, especially the opening verse: “Remember when we argued on the concept of regret? / You were an expert even then, but not me, not yet / Now all you’ve gotta do’s remind me that we met / And there you got me, that’s how you got me, you taught me to regret.” When Apple then screams the chorus the second time, the song’s emotion truly hits: “I ran out of white dove’s feathers / To soak up the hot piss that comes through your mouth every time you address me.” This track fittingly describes a truly volatile relationship.
Surprisingly, the album ends on an upbeat note, first with the quirky love song, “Anything We Want,” featuring tin cans as percussion and Apple urging her man to “kiss me when we find some time alone.” Then, she continues the love theme with “Hot Knife,” with a beautifully melodic round featuring her sister, Maude Maggart, on backup vocals. The percussion behind “Hot Knife” is a simple timpani rhythm, and the track is built almost exclusively on vocal harmonies and catchy phrases like, “If I’m butter, if I’m butter, if I’m butter, then he’s a hot knife / He makes my heart a cinemascope screen showing a dancing bird of paradise.” It is with this track that the listener has some relief from the heaviness of the record, bringing The Idler Wheel… to a pleasant, positive close.
Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel… is art, beyond just popular music, because Apple has nothing to prove—true music fans already acknowledge her musical genius, even if some may not particularly enjoy it. Sometimes she can come off as unstable—and even she admits her own “crazy”—but isn’t that what it takes to create true art? She doesn’t need commercialism to sell records, nor does she need to worry about what exactly is “popular” (and she has no urge to, either).
While some will undoubtedly write this album off as “twitchy” or “unlistenable,” its beauty is in its imperfection and rawness. Some of the songs may be overly dark and confessional to the casual listener, but for those who can appreciate someone literally exposing every inch of their inner self to anyone and everyone in the vicinity, The Idler Wheel… is exposure at its most pure. Besides, there’s “nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key.”
This article was originally published on AllMediaNY.com
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