Review Summary: "Nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key."Idler wheel (noun): 1. A wheel, gear, or roller used to transfer motion or to guide or support something.
Fiona Apple doesn’t so much write albums as she does give birth to them, expunging the songs out of herself in a sea of self-flagellation, venom and red, red, red. The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
was a tougher germination than most, coming seven years off of the studio fiasco that produced the strangely ebullient, jazzy Extraordinary Machine
, and it shows – nothing on this record comes easy. Apple spends years and years keeping to herself, performing one-off shows at her favorite intimate venues, and her claims that she gets what feels like the flu every time she leaves her home and that she doesn’t know how to drive are the very definition of the Artist Recluse. The songs here don’t sound like the result of any pre-production planning, of careful songwriting and the common mark of a pen and the irritating rub of an eraser. No, these songs pour out of the speakers like a wave, unrepentantly raw and crushingly determined. I have a tough time analyzing The Idler Wheel
as a result; as more than anything else Apple has done, it sounds like her truest work, the very definition of one’s innermost thoughts spooling out into the air. In an illuminating interview with Pitchfork, Apple described her music as “the stuff that I really needed to get out, [the] excrement of my life, the excrement I was trying to exorcise out of me.” Shut the doors, stop the presses: this is The Idler Wheel
in a nutshell.
“I don’t cry when I’m sad anymore.”
It comes at you fast, from the opening verses of “Every Single Night,” that throaty, full-bodied voice that sounds so uniquely, wonderfully Fiona. There’s the gentle brush of a drumstick, the background tinkle of a piano, the softest bump of percussion, but Apple’s voice is the centerpiece, starting off in quiet anguish: “Every single night I endure the flight / of little whims of white flame / butterflies in my brain.” Then her voice arcs up into that potent roar in the chorus, unadorned and all the more majestic for it. This is the template of The Idler Wheel
: Apple’s voice, front and center, taking stock of all her pains, her insecurities, the ugly moments that make up far too much or her life and everyone else’s. The album is ruthless in its unflinching look at Apple, stripped and bare of protection or any sort of emotional wall. “Left Alone” details her inability to coexist with the guy who was right for her all along: “Oh God what a good guy / and I can’t even enjoy him / ‘cuz I’m hard, too hard to know.” Ever the centerpiece, her vocals fluctuate with her emotions, rending the speakers with a desperate howl when she reaches the denouement of “Left Alone,” punctuating each word with a vindictive bit of imaginative spit on the deceptively lovely “Periphery,” and bouncing lightly to and fro on the a capella show-off “Hot Knife.” It’s a visceral performance, one that seems to reach a jagged emotional high on the vicious torch song “Regret” but never truly peaks in any one song, instead twisting and turning around Apple’s swirling moods and piercing lyrics to fit the tone of each. It’s exhausting, to be sure, but it’s also liberating, being able to peer into the psyche of an artist and having her stare back at you, uncompromising and courageous and standing on her own. “I don’t wanna talk about anything,” Apple sings on “Jonathan;” I do think the lady doth protest too much.
Whip (verb): 1. To whip the end of a line is to lace it tight with light line (whipping twine) so it won’t unravel.
Accompanied only by her trusty piano and bandmate Charley Drayton’s superb percussion work, Apple is simultaneously at her loosest and most focused, unburdened by the flashy production that marked Extraordinary Machine
. There’s nothing elaborate here or bejeweled besides that ever-shifting voice, and Drayton’s work is note-perfect; a soft thwump there, a gravelly shuffle here, all barely rising above the level of a tap. Indeed, many of the arrangements fall just short of skeletal, a harmonic shading or the occasional multi-tracked rhythm, but in its unfettered, jazzy inflections much of The Idler Wheel
comes off as the perfect lounge record: we are sitting here, a dark room with wooden floors and liquor stains, watching Apple perform under the bright lights, the haze of cigarette smoke doing nothing to obscure that voice. It forces the songwriting to shine through, whether it comes immediately like the hook on “Periphery” or whether it surges to the surface after percolating a bit as “Werewolf” or “Every Single Night” do. But there are no pithy singles here and nothing that arrives with an easy promotional angle, Apple finally pulling off the blatantly anti-commercial promise she has hinted at ever since her sly, subversive “Criminal” video aired fifteen years ago. Instead, there’s a vigorous determination and a terrifying dexterity, in both the album’s free-flowing style and in Apple’s own vocal cunning. She is fully untethered, not having to answer to the whims of a record company or the desires of a producer, and as a result The Idler Wheel
never has to stop to wonder what it’s all about.
“Nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key.”
Apple’s greatest gift has always been going to the darkest part of herself, the heartache and jealousy and self-loathing and rage, the same parts that everyone grapples with daily, and staring it right in the eye, giving no quarter to it as she belts it all out. It’s a refreshingly candid quality and one that makes Apple, for all her inhumanly agile vocals and odd idiosyncrasies, one of the most relatable singer-songwriters of her generation. More so than any of her previous albums, The Idler Wheel
, with its spartan production, shines an uncomfortable light on all those uneasy insecurities, everything messy and tense about the human condition. Yet there Apple is, at the forefront of every song, opening by expelling the ideas that split her skull on “Every Single Night” and finishing as the confident man-eater of “Hot Knife.” She has never sounded as good, as irascible yet as in control as she does here. It’s compelling vocal drama, told through the twists and turns of her voice and the softly pervasive arrangements, and Apple is crystal clear in her protestations and so, so easy to empathize with. To bare your soul to an audience starved for seven years for your work, to go about it as tenaciously and unshrinking from all expectations and to succeed, as Apple unequivocally does here, in getting that audience to feel what she is feeling, or at least to be a part of it all for a little; The Idler Wheel
is an emotional thesis that cannot be ignored. It is perhaps the most unforgettable work of her career.