|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|
Give the woman credit: she once held the world record for longest album title and, while it's barely over a quarter of the length of the title of 1999's When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks Like a King What He Knows Throws the Blows When He Goes to the Fight and He'll Win the Whole Thing 'fore He Enters the Ring There's No Body to Batter When Your Mind Is Your Might So When You Go Solo, You Hold Your Own Hand and Remember that Depth is the Greatest of Heights and if You Know Where You Stand, Then You Know Where to Land and if You Fall it Won't Matter, cuz You'll Know That You're Right, the title of Fiona Apple's latest album is certainly a mouthful on its own. Not since the heyday of post-rock and bands like Set Fire to Flames (or Marnie Stern) have titles been so willfully prolix. This is not a marketing gimmick, though; she doesn't need long titles to sell records or generate interest. There's enough investment in Apple's work that, in the lead-up to this album (including her shows at SXSW), it sometimes felt as if the entire internet was waiting for it, ready to lavish praise. I don't have a personal investment in Apple's music--I owned Tidal at one point, but I haven't seen that CD in long enough to say that I'm pretty sure I no longer own it, and while I will occasionally put "Criminal" on the jukebox (as much to remember my pubescent fascination with its video as to enjoy what's still a pretty captivating song), I would hardly call myself a serious fan. I barely qualify as an un-serious fan.
Like the last record I reviewed--Liars' WIXIW--The Idler Wheel sinks and/or swims on the back of its intense insularity. Of course, whereas the Liars' album saw them branching out into electronics and fully consolidating their position in a tradition of Euro art-pop, Apple foregrounds the insular nature of her record by relying primarily on her voice and piano. There are some sublime moments when other touches creep in--a beautiful loop that swells up on "Valentine," some wonderful bass on that track and on "Daredevil," the relentlessly propulsive drums on "Left Alone," the disembodied children's voices on "Werewolf" (which I expect to be the next single), the backing vocals on "The Periphery"--but, as it's been seven years since her last album, you're given a healthy dose of Fiona to focus on here. Her voice is an instrument of startling power and force, and she takes full advantage of those properties, exploring her full range and letting loose at times with a kind of demented fervour that is either effective or grating depending on the listener, I imagine (for me, it's six of one, half a dozen of the other). Similarly, her piano playing is impressively nuanced, moving from flowing lines to jerky, staccato sections without any show of strain, ballet-like in its interactions with Apple's voice.
The Idler Wheel is at its best when the insularity works to create gorgeously open, free songs, bereft of any apparent plan and able to follow the baroque twists and turns of Apple's phrasings. Many songs avoid obvious verse-chorus structures, but rarely do they stray into consciously difficult structures. Sometimes, as on "Jonathan" or "Regret," the song is structured around a refrain that works as a kind of mantra, Apple testing out all the various inflections of the words and letting her voice do the emotional heavy lifting. Other songs, like opener and lead single "Every Single Night," offer a structure that's a little closer to a traditional pop song, though on that song Apple's whooping turn in the chorus manages to use the unease it provokes as a way of at once subverting and highlighting how catchy it is. Indeed, for an ostensibly "pop" album on a major label, the music here gets a lot of mileage out of dissonant and gnarled passages--like the bass rumbles that erupt in "Daredevil," the curiously monotone bleat (which reminds me of Gal Costa) of the repeated "when all I do is beg to be left" on "Left Alone," and the howled "The lava of a volcano" from "Werewolf"--as much as the more obviously elegant melody of "Valentine."
While the album's insularity pushes it to some wonderfully unique moments full of unexpected beauty, the relatively limited palette leads to subtle differences holding more weight than they otherwise might, and the middle of the album suffers at times from being a little bit indistinct and run together. "Jonathan" and "Left Alone" are almost twins, despite the latter's impressive vocal gymnastics, and they would be better served by more distinguishing features. Similarly, "Periphery" is slightly overlong, and manages to detract from the very momentum it injects into this stretch.
If the album's middle can drag at times, though, its closing trio of tracks is, like the opening trio, a nice distillation of all of its strengths. "Regret" is unflinchingly direct, its percussion track offering real weight and hitting like a series of body blows, while Apple lets her voice fall out entirely or briefly ascend to a shriek as she repeats the devastating lines "I ran out of white doves' feathers / to soak up the hot piss that comes from your mouth / every time you address me." On an album that often calls forth surprising associations, the opening of "Anything We Want" is strikingly reminiscent of that of "Ponderosa" from Maxinquaye, while its lyrics offer the most poignantly optimistic view of life on the album. The best, though, is saved for last, with the glorious multitracked Fionas of "Hot Knife" offering a playful conclusion as suggestive of a horde of robotic backing singers as the jazz tunes its rhythm hints at.
Overall, The Idler Wheel is an intriguing listen. There's nothing particularly safe or obvious about what Apple is doing here, and if there is a deeper pleasure to be found with either a substantial personal investment of past fandom or a willingness to puzzle out the contexts of her lyrics, the album offers a surface intriguing enough to draw the casual listener in. It's a bold move to ask listeners to either engage with an album on its own terms or turn away, but that feels like what Apple is proposing here. Credit her for making engagement worthwhile, and--crucial to the possibility of this engagement--for the album's crystal clear production, which encourages close and careful scrutiny of its details, a rarity in the era of loudness wars and major label releases that often hurt to listen to. Whether or not the album was worth the seven year wait I leave to her more devoted fans to sort out, but I have to think that this would be a welcome addition to her catalogue whenever it appeared.