“I want you to know how I feel. Acknowledge me.”
These are the words of Fiona Apple, said during an iTunes Originals session to describe her method of writing letters to her parents whenever she felt she was being cast aside and tangentially sum up the theme for Apple’s third record, Extraordinary Machine. More than that, however, Apple seems to be hitting at something universal about her music, a reason for why her airing her inner battles on albums have become such a fascinating facet of the female pop agenda. Apple has rarely, if ever, written a straight love song. Her poetry is punctuated by a manic depression spilled out unusually neatly across plaintive, jazz-tinged female blues. In her seventeen (?!) year, three album (?!?!?!) career up until this point, fans have been allowed to dissect her schizophrenic descent into mania to death. Her oeuvre is not one to be taken lightly, so the likelihood of Apple’s comeback being as poignant and powerful as her new album, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Ripping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do, is makes the accomplishment all the more stultifying.
While Jon Brion’s version of Extraordinary Machine may have yielded different cultural results, even if it wasn’t markedly different from the actual finished product, The Idler Wheel is a comment on how, for nearly nine years, every conceivable producer, from Andrew Slater to Mike Elizondo to the inimitable Brion, completely misinterpreted the proper way to surround Fiona Apple’s wounded and gorgeous voice. The Idler Wheel, and producer Charley Drayton (not coincidentally Apple’s touring drummer), solve this riddle simply: percussion, lots of it in constantly gestating states of syncopation. The jaunty “Periphery” is filled out with scrapes and scratches acting as a steadying tempo and perfect complement to Apple’s piano riffing. “Daredevil” is all skitter and brush, “Hot Knife” is big ass tympani, and “Anything We Want” is a jazz drummer banging a spoon on kitchen instruments. Unadorned yet anything but simple, Idler Wheel makes a pretty, propulsive thing out of what used to be distraction or baroque genre-isms. What was once a producer adding to his resumé now plays more as setting the table for a master singer-songwriter.
Which is, of course, what Fiona Apple has always been. It’s not as if Apple is doing unprecedented things – female artists for the past seventeen years have pushed themselves to the point of inane over-rhyme trying to emulate Apple’s naturalistic poetry. “Werewolf” almost trends too much towards cute metaphors until Apple buries her competition with a wallop of a line: “But we can still support each other / all we’ve gotta do’s avoid each other / nothin’ wrong when a song ends in the minor key.” Her struggles, here especially, seem closer at hand than anybody else who tries to get intimate with their verse. Perhaps it’s her voice; “Valentine,” for it’s first eighty seconds, is carried by Apple’s calm barroom croon, one of her stronger vocal suits. In any other hand, “I stared at you and cut myself” is dangerously close to emo. In Apple’s throat, it’s dangerously close to too beautiful.
But the best parts of The Idler Wheel come when Apple loses it. “Left Alone” is a sprint of a number, but for twenty seconds as a refrain Fiona Apple descends into vocal histrionics any other human would kill to have in their wheelhouse. Anger induced callousness, miraculous high falsetto, a free fall downward into the bar, then a burrowing into hell with “when all I do is beg to be left alone.” She does the same thing on “Regret,” running her cords raw just to repeat her most important line. As she finishes her percussion comes in to bring her back from the edge, but never gets in the way of her getting there.
Perhaps the difference between The Idler Wheel and Apple’s previous records is in her realization of when to let the animal that has gotten herself into these situations she sings about out. Apple off the leash seems like a particularly scary theme for a comeback record, but it turns out it’s that vital burst of emotion was exactly what her confidently intelligent poetry needed. Her self-deprecation comes through more solidly. Her sorrow is apparent, even on the singles. Watch her performance of “Anything We Want” on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and maybe you’ll see those tears forming in Apple’s eyes. Apple has always excelled at carrying through her emotional fragility on stage – the miracle of The Idler Wheel is that ready to break intimacy is right in your headphones.
Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel tracklist:
- “Every Single Night”
- “Left Alone”
- “Anything We Want”
- “Hot Knife”