What Fiona Apple was up to in the seven years between the release of her third album Extraordinary Machine (2005) and her latest is anybody’s guess. But whatever it was, we are grateful. The Idler Wheel is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do is the name. It’s an album of austere minimalism, but Apple’s bombast, her theatrics and tantrums are all there.
The great moody mistress began her career in 1996 with Tidal, a collection of 10 songs she wrote as a teenager (And it shows.). Sandwiched between her debut and Extraordinary Machine was When the Pawn…, which until now was her best album.
Known for her wildly public moxie and overflowingly emotive songwriting, Fiona Apple does what she does, as she proclaims on album opener “Every Single Night.” She just wants to feel everything and we just want her to be happy. But there’s a storm in her brain. Tines of a music box begin the album and ring in a sort of manifesto for Apple. Her contralto resounds the chorus, “Every single night’s a fight with my brain,” as she chews on things that go bump in her head at night. “These ideas of mine / Percolate the mind / Trickle down the spine / Swarm the belly, swelling to a blaze.” To listen to this song is to hear someone taking pleasure in madness, because “every single fight’s alright.” Until it’s not.
“Daredevil” is an analogue to Apple’s anger-stained anthem “Fast as You Can” from her sophomore When the Pawn… “I don’t feel anything / Until I smash it up.” Apple plunks on her piano as if it were a drum, using the instrument more for its rhythmic capacities than as a melodic tool. Her voice is more jagged, less controlled, allowing a shameless stream of feelings.
Unlike her works past, Apple rarely slows things down here. “Valentine,” a melancholy ballad of doting love, is classic Apple. Lyrically, she’s funny and ironic, even when she’s miserable. “I made it to a dinner date / Teardrops seasoned every plate,” she sings.
While Apple has typically used her music as a platform to lambast men who left her for dead, The Idler Wheel demonstrates a look inward. As on “Every Single Night” and “Daredevil,” Apple wonders how crazy she must be. “Regret,” the most touching song, breaks this mold because the chanteuse is so forthcoming about being bedeviled by love. The lyrics are as featherbrained as ever: “I ran out of white dove feathers / To soak up the hot piss that comes from your mouth / Every time you address me.” Her quivering timbre breaks on the “your,” a plie on a jutted nail, splitting her voice open and summoning the righteous Apple we know, whose voice isn’t always perfect.
An emotional bright spot amid an album of anguish, “Anything We Want” pops the balloon of Apple’s emotional tumescence with buoyant percussion, a sweet serenade of playground love. She handles each word, each note, with care as shaky hands hold a teacup on a saucer. What distinguishes Apple from her sistren of lovelorn girls on pianos is that her sound is entirely hers, rather than some patchy jumble of other people’s noise and style. Singers like Adele profess, “You hurt me, but look, I’m still beautiful!” while Apple is saying, “No, you fucked me up and made me ugly. Now here I am.”
Every song is a standout. “Jonathan” is like riding a madcap carousel, as Apple sings about former lover Jonathan Ames, with whom she shared a beautiful day in Coney Island. The structure is loose but always confident, contrasting a tightly-made ballad such as “Werewolf,” wherein Apple likens herself and her lover to “a wishing well and a bolt of electricity.” This woman is trouble, addicted to danger. Songwriting, for Apple, is an X-ray of the soul, a self-evaluation that is the only place she can work out her troubles.
You can’t write about love. Not really, anyway. When asked why you love someone or something, the best answer you can give is, “I don’t know, I just do, okay?” This goes for Fiona Apple fans — which is why it’s so hard to write about her — as well as Apple herself. Her ability to spin gold out of spoiled love and her batshit craziness proves what a talent she is. She grabs you by the throat and demands an active rather than passive listen. Few singers have that power. On The Idler Wheel, Apple tops herself as she demands that we feel everything with her and that we feel things we didn’t know we could.