Fiona Apple’s re-emergence every half decade or so is a triumphant celebration for a niche community of devotees and rather an apathetic shrug for the rest of America, which assumes (wrongly) that she’s just a Lilith Fair throwback, trying to claw her way back into the limelight. I belong to the former group, as my parenthetical aside betrays. Apple is a brilliant songwriter. I know this to be true. I just feel guilty enjoying her music as much as I do. She’s clearly unwell, both in heart and mind (no matter what she says on the chat shows), and this has never been more apparent than on her latest opus, the steely-eyed and daringly entitled The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do.
“Every Single Night” is a most bizarre album opener and even more confounding as a single. With its wild dynamic shifts from heart pounding chants to shaky whispers, Apple sounds not of sound mind. But it works on every level. The lyrics are obsessively reflective, of course, as Apple analyzes the tricks her brain plays on her night after night. She’s fixated on how the brain functions, and its impact on her many neuroses has infiltrated her perceptiveness as a songwriter. You simply can’t help but believe her when she whisper-sings, maniacally, “I just want to feel everything.” On “Daredevil” Apple concedes that she may indeed “need a chaperone” as she’s not to be left alone, but her melodies and vocal idiosyncrasies are so endearing that it’s easy to overlook the obvious pleas for help just to enjoy the song.
The Idler Wheel… is Apple’s most rhythmically dense album. Several songs spark from odd syncopations that effortlessly weave into minimal layers of piano, stilted percussion and Apple’s oddly nuanced delivery. Her piano refrains embed themselves into your subconscious before she even utters a word. But when the words do come, you can feel the songs slowly ensnare your emotions, too, until you’re trapped in her world, seeing things exactly as she sees them. It’s as frightening as it is moving. Apple’s rawness eschews judgment. The girl doesn’t give a damn what you think of her. She knows what she’s feeling, and she’s able to express it in myriad complicated ways.
Apple’s never been one to hold back- not on stage, not in interviews, and certainly not on record. For “Jonathan” Apple adopts one of her most frequented personae: that of spurned lover. The scorned woman in her has matured, however. Where once she would have raged she now eviscerates in subtle yet cutting ways. Her lyrics have never been better. To make such bitterness palpable yet musical is a talent few possess. On “Left Alone” her theme is simple: She wants to be loved but how can anyone love her and be close to her when all she wants is to be left alone? The Alanis Morrisettes of the world can’t conceive of that level of irony. And she lets loose of soul-mining, gut-wrenching insightfulness: “My ills are reticulate/my woes are granular/the ants weigh more than the elephants” before lurching into an operatic, bemoaning crescendo of the word “alone.” It’s staggeringly good.
The climax of the album – without question – is “Werewolf,” which very well might be Apple’s finest piece of songwriting to date. What sounds so simple is complicated by factors that aren’t necessarily obvious upon first listen. The lyrics are brutal and honest and hyperbolic. You know, normal Fiona Apple terrain. But her inflection is so universally empathetic and heart-rending that you can’t avoid being hypnotized by the simplicity of the verses, which she sings in a conversational, easy-going tone. The juxtaposition of the absurdity of the content versus the casual delivery is a bit of a mindfuck. The context, of course, is absurdly over the top, but she drifts into the world of meta in the non-sequitur coda/refrain: “There’s nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key.” It’s more than just an infectious line. You can’t stop singing it to yourself once you’ve heard it. It has such a classic cadence that you can’t believe Elton John – or someone – hadn’t thought of it before now. It’s simply that good.
“Periphery” mines a familiar theme of love lost and squandered but with a new spirit of optimism engendered with true empathy and understanding. Apple’s lyrical incisiveness is what stands out, though: “Oh, the periphery/I lost another one there/he found a prettier girl than me/with a more even tempered air/and if he wants her, he should get her/cause I think she’s worth it.” Fiona Apple circa 1999 would never have said such things. She’s blowing off love lost? And even encouraging its culmination with another? What? The sadness in her voice is that of passive resignation. Even the vocal histrionics toward the end reveal an “oh well” sort of send-off. It’s a fine line between maturity and just not giving a shit anymore. But then the anger returns on “Regret”: “I ran out of white dove feathers/to soak up the hot piss that flows from your mouth/every time you address me.” Jesus. I would not want to be on the receiving end of that conversation.
“Anything We Want” is a shrewdly understated love song. It qualifies as quite jubilant for this record, though. It’s honest and open and nostalgic and imaginative but not in a sentimental way. There’s an air of dissonance that meanders through it – and the whole album, actually – that keeps you guessing. “Hot Knife” is vocal masterwork in the round, wherein she and her sister, Maude Maggart, play with exuberant harmonies, as though in a room of echoing infinity filled with nothing but voices. It’s a genre-bending tip of the hat to baroque pop’s past that showcases Apple’s respect for the sound of her own voice. And, if the breathtaking brilliance of The Idler Wheel… proves anything, it’s that Apple knows she’s good, despite the fact that she may not be well.