Review Summary: Her finest album but not one you’ll want to listen to all of the time.
You only need two images of Fiona Apple to understand the tension behind her fourth, and most personal, album. One is the photo that accompanies the iTunes landing page that’s selling The Idler Wheel…; it’s a glamorous picture of Apple in her twenties, thin, sultry, with sleepy blue eyes, huge lips and the kind of raw magnetism that takes both men’s and women’s breath away. The other is the drawing that adorns the album’s cover, a self-portrait composed from a frenetic, obsessive-compulsive swath of scribbled pen-lines that is by turns gripping, maddeningly intricate, and grotesque. In truth, Fiona Apple pogo-sticks somewhere between these two poles, and The Idler Wheel… personifies that frantic energy that has both graced and plagued her fifteen year career.
Lyrically and musically, The Idler Wheel… invites you in and kicks you out at the same time, much like the tortured lover that Apple describes herself as therein. It’s her finest album but not one you’ll want to listen to all of the time. The songs are skeletal casings built around the core rhythmic elements of Apple’s jaunty piano lines, jazzy spoken word vocal style, and a bevy of found sound percussion. The little details draw your attention while the tracks’ constant shuffling and lurching keep you off guard. Time and time again, Apple eschews sugary pop hooks and traditional song structures for more off-kilter vocal phrasings and arrangements which keeps the spotlight on her powerful voice and her constant state of imbalance. It’s disarming, subversive and brave.
The Idler Wheel… marks Apple’s return from a seven year hiatus, and while its not in the vein of her past mainstream work, it’s filled with moments that stay with you for awhile. Opener “Every Single Night” is as telling and truthful a chronicle of a suffering artist as I’ve heard in a long time, describing the struggle to reconcile the manic flow of ideas with the need for one moment of quiet peace. Apple describes what’s its like to be human with a profound ache: “I just want to feel everything.” Throughout the record, Apple displays an uncanny knack of combining metaphors, common turns of a phrases, and unexpected rhymes into something deeply personal yet imminently accessible.
In 1996, a young Apple was careless with the hearts of delicate men, assumed roles of criminal and shadow boxer to manage relationships, and lamented the abuse she had endured along the way. In some ways, little has changed. She’s still trying to figure out the opposite sex, and getting torched in the process. “And you were such/ A super guy/ ‘Til the second you get a whiff of me” is as frank and devastating an indictment as a woman could give, but Apple admits to carrying her own baggage, too: “I’m amorous but out of reach/ A still life drawing of a peach.” She expresses deep sadness without ever falling into maudlin self-pity and exudes inner strength without self-righteousness. God help the poor soul who’s on the other end of the most scathing indictment of the year: “I ran out of white dove feathers to soak up the hot piss that comes from your mouth every time you address me.” Her intensity can be exhausting.
But the main difference between the 18-year old and 34-year old Apple is that while her demons remain, she now seems more at ease and adept at trying to exorcise them with her audience. “I’m a tulip in a cup/ I stand no chance of growing up” she sings in “Valentine,” but her maturation over the course The Idler Wheel… proves otherwise. Even during her younger years, Apple was always determined that her work speak more loudly than her image, and now that her nubile pop star image has evolved into that of a steely, world-weary woman, it finally can. She’s gone from wearing her underwear in tract houses on MTV (something she always seemed ill at ease with) to wearing an octopus on her head and singing to cult audiences at SXSW, wiry, haggard yet oddly triumphant. There’s something about the way her emotional war wounds are on full display now that suits her.
After seven years of silence, many had written Apple’s career off for dead, which makes The Idler Wheel’s… candor and vivacity so astonishing. You practically jump out of your chair on “Daredevil” when she bellows “Wake me up/ Give me, give me, give me what you got/ In your mind, in the middle of the night.” You get the sense that’s exactly what she’s delivering on The Idler Wheel… --- the keep-awakes that torture her soul. She isn’t the first pop singer to make a living by plundering the wreckage of her own disastrous relationships and turning it into art, but few have done it so incisively and vividly. “Every night’s a fight with my brain” she admits, and in many regards The Idler Wheel… is a therapy session on full display.
Ultimately, it’s Apple’s honesty and her poetic struggle between between the cerebral and sensual that makes her work something you’ll come back to. Towards the album’s end, the tender sway of “Anything We Want” reveals Apple to be almost playful as she flirts with a lover over raindrops: “The rivulets had you riveted to the places that I wanted you to kiss me.” In the context of any other song about carnal desires fulfilled, a chorus of “We can do anything we want” might possess a purring sexuality, but sung against the backdrop of Apple’s angst, it feels like an expression of internal fortitude. Through the years, Apple has learned she can’t f*ck away the pain --- relief has to come from something within her. The Idler Wheel… is her pursuit of that resolution, which eventually bears beautiful, albeit bittersweet fruit.