|Fiona Apple is a singer of OCD heart-scarred, loser in love impulsive torch songs. She's a piano abusing confessional singer-songwriter who just doesn't fit in. Even in her own skin she's uncomfortable. Apple stares at the mirror and argues with herself. She sings as much to "Fiona" as she does to her fans and her former lovers. Fiona Apple is back after seven years of silence with The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do - yeah, sure...what Fiona said...Wait, What? OK, we'll call it The Idler Wheel.
Apple explained to Pitchfork the meaning of the title in a recent interview:
"I came up with it in a total rush. After having stayed up all night on deadline, it just came to me right after the sun rose. I didn't realize people would be like, "Oh shit, another poem." It just came out to be what it was-- sorry. If you think about it, the driver of the screw has one job and he is always trying to change things. But the idler wheel is there and has this great effect on what the gears do; the idler wheel knows the machine much better than just this one thing that's performing this one task. For the second line, I had read about whipping cords in a nautical book that my last boyfriend had. I read that when ropes get frayed at sea, you can repair the frayed ends of the ropes with whipping cords that are very strong. This goes right back to the parenting thing-- if I had a kid, and I had a choice between teaching somebody how to avoid trouble, or teaching them how to get out of it, I'd teach them how to get out of it."
The Idler Wheel is so damn good; it makes an Apple album seem worth waiting seven years to hear. Actually, I don't think I could take a ride on Apple's emotional roller coaster more frequently than once a decade. Her songs are just so naked. Should we really be in on her secrets? She is the kind of musician who is unafraid of confronting feelings that terrify her. Miraculously, she manages to write personal, poetic lyrics that don't recall college-level creative writing nonsense. She's in a league with writers like Leonard Cohen or Joni Mitchell or those other 70s folks, but where Cohen's confessions are like prayers meticulously crafted and quietly mulled over, Apple's lyrics are like demons on fire bursting angrily from her mind to the page. She's fighting to survive her own melodies.
Apple's singing is the fulcrum of the album. Her voice is magnificent throughout. She avoids the smoky bore of Norah Jones or the delicate professionalism of Sarah McLachlan by contorting, crooning, yelling, sighing, and generally challenging herself on each tune. On songs like "Regret" and "Daredevil," she out screamo’s Conor Oberst during his Letting Off the Happiness period. In the age of auto-tuned teen stars, her vocal shredding is more than just welcome, it's essential. "Hot Knife" is perhaps my favorite song on the album. It's one of Apple's most unique pieces of music as well. With exquisitely complex harmonies by Apple and her sister Maude Maggart, the lyrics ooze lust. They sing, "I'm a hot knife, he's a pad of butter/If I get a chance I'm going to show him that he's never gonna need another." The sexual hunger is palpable in this album closer.
"Anything We Want" (another fave) is pushed forward by the rhythmic back and forth of Apple's piano and co-producer/multi-instrumentalist Charlie Drayton's percussion. The pair worked as a team for the majority of this album and they found the perfect balance between stark and clever arrangements. They didn't choose to make a stripped down "songwriter" record; no, they embellish the pounding piano chords, bass, and drums with occasional samples, celeste, marimba, and even the sound of thighs. The album is the opposite of the ornate tonal palette of Apple's previous records. The Idler Wheel is percussive, with emphasis on how a rhythm section can create a full, satisfyingly sonic world with lyrics that fit perfectly into the beats too.
The album isn't flawless. Apple's song to former boyfriend Jonathan Ames, "Jonathan," slows the pace early on and, even though it's not a bad song, it goes on for about three minutes too long. This is one small complaint. Towards the end of the total forty-two minute running time, my main thought was, "Do I start it over again?" Yes, I listened to it two times in a row and again later on...then once more before the day was through. She recorded a solid set of tunes, 'nuff said.
Fiona Apple, squid hat fashion and all, is an outlier in pop music. She's had huge success and acted out like a petulant child. Her fame made her more eccentrically reclusive, yet she somehow channels her weirdness into wonderful (yet somewhat damaged) music. She's not an entertainer. She's not Beyonce. No, Apple is one of those "suffering" artist types, and it would be smart to get over the backstory and just focus on the songs because they're great. How often do we listen to an album and feel anything these days? It's nice to feel again.