CD Review: Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do

Fiona Apple has never been one to bow down to traditions of the music industry.  Whether blatantly slamming the industry at awards ceremonies, throwing tantrums borne of perfectionist tendencies on stage or giving her albums ridiculously long names because she wants to and can, Fiona is a free spirit.  Her fans make sure to this:  recall the “Free Fiona” campaign, which was misinformed and yet appreciated by Apple (“They didn’t get the story quite right, but they did help me get my album out.”).

Seven years after the release of the underappreciated Extraordinary Machine, Fiona is back with her fourth album, mouthful The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do, hereafter called The Idler Wheel to spare me carpal tunnel.  In a 16-year career, four albums is incredibly sparse – even Kate Bush has been more prolific in recent years.  Whether this is borne of Fiona’s refusal to churn out material on command or perhaps a Sarah McLachlan-esque curse of a Muse that comes and goes, the key question is this:  is The Idler Wheel worth the wait?

In this first listen review, I take a look at the latest from the moody master of vocabulary and punchy metaphors, Fiona Apple.

Every Single Night:  The album opens with a track that seems to pack up everything that is distinctly Fiona into one song.  Bass-heavy, off-kilter melodies plucked behind Fiona’s raw yet fragile vocals, delivered in alternating rapid-fire and meandering style.  A battle within self is depicted – a theme Fiona touches on rather frequently in her lyrics – with Fiona troubled by, “The flight of little wings of white-flamed butterflies in my brain.”   Torn between her mind and heart and the burden of being open to emotion, Fiona insists. as if to convince herself, “I just want to feel everything.”  “Every Single Night” could very easily belong to Extraordinary Machine with its sparse instrumentation and lounge-jazz feel.

Daredevil:  Playing off the preceding track, I again feel like I’m watching a lounge singer with a band behind her, perhaps one with an incredibly broken heart soaked in a bottle of gin.  The line “I may need a chaperone” is striking, giving Extraordinary Machine‘s title track, wherein Fiona notes, “Everybody cares and wears the sheep’s clothes while they chaperone.”  Looming and dark, “Daredevil” is a descent into breakdown with gusto, a soul thriving on destruction – nay, fueled by it.  “Say I’m an airplane and the gashes I got from my heartbreak make the slots and the flaps upon my wing,” Fiona snarls.  I’m ambivalent on this one.  It feels bass-heavy and frankly, I feel like we’ve been here already with previous tracks by Apple (“A Mistake”).  The sharp shift from the reflective learning and optimism of her previous album to this flailing, destructive woman almost feels like a de-evolution.

Valentine:  The first sultry piano ballad of the album, “Valentine” is a story of love unrequited and again, the lyrics stray into darkness.  “I stared at you and cut myself,” Fiona confesses, lamenting that she loves and yet remains unseen, never to grow up.  Not growing up in my concern, frankly:  the lyrics are earnest and emotional, yet lack the maturity exemplified on When The Pawn… and Extraordinary Machine.  This feels regressive, a Tidal redux, and one cannot help but look at these three tracks and wonder what darkness has permeated Apple’s life.  While diary-like raw albums often engage me, I can’t help but feel wrong to be entertained here.

Jonathan:  In a track that shows Taylor Swift how a scorned jab at an ex should be done, Fiona’s voice is tossed by the wave-like melody as she recalls her time with – presumably – her ex, Jonathan Ames.  Beseeching tolerance and shelved questions and yet, coming off sarcastic as she does, Fiona damns the titular character for enjoying her misery while seeking to praise him almost as further insult.  “You like to captain a capsized ship, but I like watching you live.”

Left Alone:  With an opening that is perhaps one of the most evocative and intriguing instrumental compositions of her career, Fiona launches into a big band jazzy rapid-fire exposition of her catch-22 life of wanting to love and yet wanting to be alone.  Frantic, fevered and angry, the venom brought to a slow simmer in previous track “Jonathan” boils over and triggers a smoke detector siren’s song.  One of the strongest tracks by miles of this album, it’s fresh, lyrically clever and gut-wrenching.

Werewolf:  Forming  a sort of movement with the previous two tracks, the tables fully turn, with Fiona recognizing that in every relationship, it takes two people to destroy what has been built, with each person involved bringing a unique element to the mix.  The maturity lacking in earlier tracks emerges anew here, as Apple seeks amicability in absence:  “But we could still support each other/All we gotta do is avoid each other/Nothing wrong when a song ends in the minor key.”  A more straight-up piano number reminiscent of Tidal, “Werewolf” is a waltz-life, reflective ode to love failed and perhaps doomed.

Periphery:  The vicious wordplay Fiona is notorious is for is in fine form on this track.  Dripping with bitter truths learned the very hard way, Apple wryly notes, “Oh, the periphery, they throw good parties there.”  With a shimmy-sway feel, Apple dissects the way we gossip and make assumptions about others, but also an inability to immerse in the core of life is laden with loss.  The album is jarring:  at one moment, Apple is reflecting on her flaws; the next, she is blaming everyone else (“All that loving must’ve been lacking something if I got bored trying to figure you out,” she jeers.).  This album is giving me whiplash.

Regret:  Bluesy yet with a strange tempo, “Regret” begins beaten and bruised, only to emerge enraged.  For those who love Fiona’s moments of belted, strained vocals, this one’s your song.  A wounded animal lashing out, Fiona tells her once-love, “Now when you look at me, you’re condemned to see the monster your mother made you to be.”  It’s a “calling you out” and “how was I so stupid?” tune, but honestly, we’ve heard this before from Apple ad nauseum – and done better.  I doubt I’ll spin it again, if only because the “hot piss” line is just…. childish.

Anything We Want:  Oh thank you for the break from the stifling negativity:  a sexy, sassy song about sex.  Enchanting, the listener is drawn like a snake to a charmer with a particularly bad-ass percussive accompaniment to the flute.  Primal and animalistic, Fiona’s voice beckons her lover to remind her of the kisses she’s hinted at once they’re alone, “And then we can do anything we want.”  I can’t help but roll my eyes a bit at the “UFC rookie” lyric, but overall, “Anything We Want” is a highlight of the album.

Hot Knife:  The album closes with a swinging undercurrent as Apple’s voice evokes the sultry feel of the 1920s.  The repetition and layered vocals build and swell, the pounding of a lusting heart as it closes in on the object of its affection.  “I’m a hot knife if he’s a pad of butter/If I get a chance, I’m gonna show him that he’s never gonna need- never need another.”  A natural continuation of previous song “Anything We Want”, it’s coursing with sexual energy and conquest.

Final Thoughts:  This album feels incredibly unbalanced and unpolished, in the sense that like a novel, it desperately needs an editor.  The closing two tracks – two of the strongest numbers – feel completely out of place in the sea of similar songs about love done wrong.  On the other hand, while I love Apple’s ability to epitomize rage, hurt and longing in her work, half of the songs on The Idler Wheel feel half-assed or like poor knock-offs of songs she’s written before.  Had this album emerged three years after her last, it would be a little more forgivable, but with a seven-year absence, one expects something far better.  I am genuinely stunned at the positive reviews this album is getting, because this is her weakest work overall.  Granted, Apple’s weak work is still miles ahead of many artists on the market, but the bar she’s continually set just slammed her in the forehead.

Apple commented in a recent interview that she didn’t admit she was creating an album at the time she began to record, and sadly, it shows.  The lack of focus and intent weakens her here.  I sense that some tracks will grow on me, and I do love the Cotton Club feel of the disc, but ultimately, this album is rather patchy.

Highlights:  Every Single Night; Left Alone; Anything We Want; Periphery
Lowlights:  Regret; Daredevil; Valentine

Overall Album Grade:  B+


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