Artist: Fiona Apple
Album: “The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do”
Fiona Apple’s first release in seven years, the obnoxious-yet-unsurprisingly titled “The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do” is not a fun album. Of course, that’s not much of a revelation for an artist with a long-held reputation for emotional volatility, but there’s a certain clarity imbued within “The Idler Wheel. . .” that suggests that Apple, for all her agony and angst, is very practical at her core — musically and intellectually.
While “The Idler Wheel. . . “ might not mirror the show tune grandiosity of its predecessor, 2005’s “Extraordinary Machine,” Apple still manages to make plenty of big statements without employing much more than a piano and left-field percussion. It’s an equal dose of confession and catharsis and arguably the most accomplished, albeit difficult, album of her career. And no stones go unturned this time around. “The Idler Wheel. . . “ runs the gamut of Apple’s emotive confusion, shifting from crippling neurosis (“Left Alone”) to calm resignation (“Werewolf”) to nostalgic escapism (“Anything We Want”). Her uncanny ability to translate all of her personal hell into something so simultaneously raw and realized only further confirms that she truly is one of the most gifted and daring musical minds of our generation.
While much of her songwriting is rooted in jazz and pop, Apple has never resigned herself to tried-and-true conventions. Drummer and multi-instrumentalist Charlie Drayton uses everything from a glockenspiel to a marimba, packing “The Idler Wheel. . . “ with plenty of sonic curve balls to keep you guessing. The coupling of woodwind percussion with minimalist piano gives Apple’s voice plenty of room to breathe and avoids echoing the busy overproduction that characterized “Extraordinary Machine.”
Lyrically, the album is rife with arresting imagery, such as the “tears that calcify in my tummy” in “Left Alone” or the “neon zebra, shaking rain off her stripes” in “Anything We Want”. Of course, there are less subtle testimonies too. In “Jonathan” she cries and croons, recounting a trip to Coney Island her ex-boyfriend Jonathan Ames.
But Perhaps the Apple’s most compelling moment occurs with the devastating “Regret.” Over a syncopated beat Apple belts out her most uncompromising and throat-shredding hook yet: “I ran out of white dove’s feathers/to soak up the hot piss that comes from your mouth/every time you address me.” It’s a visceral line that stings — but not once does Apple give us the impression she’s not in control. Every moment of the album is deliberate and sounds carefully calculated yet much of it remains impossibly catchy.
Balancing infectious melodies with raw emotion is what Apple does best. And fourteen years after her 90’s staple “Criminal” first dropped, she hasn’t lost any of her gall or grit. She’s a loose cannon equipped with cross hairs; a songwriter’s songwriter. And while “The Idler Wheel. . .” isn’t a perfect album, it sure does come damn close.
3 and a half stars out of 4 stars
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