The critical reaction to Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel Is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do
(hereon The Idler Wheel
) has been so harmonious in its positivity that to not like it feels almost like accusing the music criticism world at large of deluding itself. The album itself seems to corroborate this impression, as it contains all of the aesthetic ornamentation of a bona fide great album: it’s audacious, complex, challenging, and intensely personal. But, above all, this thing is difficult
, intentionally so. This is certainly not a bad thing--in fact, it’s sort of refreshing to see this from such a well-known artist releasing her first album in seven years--but here, on this abrasive drag of an album, it becomes sort of problematic.
Much of this stems from Fiona Apple’s utter subordination to being self-consciously difficult, as if this in and of itself is a desirable artistic objective. Which maybe it is, but it feels inexcusable in this context, as Apple frames what could be a serviceable opener in “Every Single Night” with chords seemingly chosen via Ouija board. The overall effect is strikingly creepy, yes, but it’s also discouragingly vacant of any significance beyond a gross fascination with its own opacity. This would be fine, perhaps, were it not for the constant impression that Apple is doing all this in the name of eschewing something else: accessibility? Catchiness? Enjoyability?
In this way, the cumulative effect of The Idler Wheel
, with the exception of maybe one or two tracks, is that of ten “Every Single Night”s in a row. At best, it sounds unfinished, like the sketches of a talented songwriter who has a few good ideas but no way to effectively string them together. At its worst, like on the unbearable “Left Alone,” it sounds like that same songwriter regressing so far into a blankly rebellious anti-melody mindset that all she can manage to spit out are baby gurgles, thoroughly devoid of structure and intensely unpleasant to listen to.
Even the best track here, “Valentine,” showcases some of Apple’s artistic weaknesses; in particular, the severely clumsy opening couplet--“You didn’t see my valentine / I sent it via pantomime”--exhibits her smugly verbose approach to lyrics; the unwieldy album title attests to this same tendency. The track is still the most successful on the album, largely because Apple gets out of her own way. It’s the only song that doesn’t feel sabotaged by utterly inorganic-sounding diminished chords into dissonant oblivion. This is all probably a conscious decision on Apple’s part, but that serves only to make the whole thing more disappointing: The Idler Wheel
is the sound of a great singer and songwriter opting out of a symbiotic relationship with her audience and her own music, instead choosing to aggressively combat any of those unlucky listeners who dare to expect something enjoyable from her. With artists as smart and self-aware as Fiona Apple, this is sometimes the way it goes. It’s just too bad that the end product, for all its flourishes of artistic ambition, had to be so profoundly empty.