The work of Fiona Apple is a testament to the beauty inherent in fractures of the human soul. The Idler Wheel is compelling in its uninhibited honesty, and also makes you linger with its spectacle-like quality. The themes aren’t new; heartache, abandonment, insecurity, self-destructive tendencies, obsession, the usual gamut of Fiona Apple’s repertoire.
However, this isn’t the same Fiona Apple we connected with on Tidal, nor is it the woman of Extraordinary Machine, seven years past. She has evolved, not only in her approach to relationships, but also in terms of the emotions which feature so heavily in her art. She is more complex, certainly more self-aware, and all too willing to push her boundaries.
Already a gifted lyricist, Apple has matured a great deal in that regard, and her words are among the outstanding elements of this album. That these lyrics are delivered with a range of vocals wider than previously attempted by Apple is another notable feature. Co-producer and drummer Charley Drayton’s influence also stands out, particularly in the subtle guidance percussion provides to nearly all the songs.
Another distinguishing element is the sparseness of the album. Even as it experiments with sounds — ranging from industrial machinery to children on a playground — The Idler Wheel remains minimalist, exercising a musical frugality.
Don’t be fooled by the opening notes of Every Single Night, though, because this is no lullaby. Rather, the song is an insight into what lies ahead. Apple’s singing includes high notes, whispers, and at times a quality akin to bellowing.
Her destructive tendencies are on display in songs like Daredevil, where she sings ‘I don’t feel anything till I smash it up’, her obsessive tendencies out in full force when singing Jonathan, a song about an ex-lover.
There are shades of the old, wistful Apple here too, though she paints a picture with the wit of the present-day-Fiona, like on the opening line to Valentine; ‘you didn’t read my valentine/I sent it via pantomime’. However, even Valentine bears the obsessive streak that is striking throughout all 10 songs.
Yes, Apple’s compulsive nature isn’t all about old lovers; it’s about the journey of self-awareness which takes place when an individual revisits old relationships to better understand herself. On Werewolf, she may at first seem to be castigating another for wounding her, but then she can’t help but ‘admit I provided a full moon’.
The jazz riff on Left Alone provides a seemingly upbeat backdrop to accepting one’s own contradictions, which in this case could apply as much to the life of an artist in the public eye as it does to an emotionally inaccessible lover; ‘how can I ask anyone to love me/when all I do is beg to be left alone’. This is one such song where Apple pushes her vocal range to the limit, albeit with mixed results.
Similar vocal experiments take place on Regret, a morose song about finality and regret, and Apple will also return to analysing relationship roles on Anything We Want.
The talents of Apple and Drayton as co-producers are on full display in Hot Knife, a song heavier with jazz influences than any prior to it. The music is precise, and the lyrics are inspired; ‘if I’m butter then he’s a hot knife’.
The Idler Wheel is a journey in which Fiona Apple vividly recollects the emotions that have come to define her as an artist, but this isn’t about simply regurgitating the evolution. The album is a story woman who is revisiting her past psyche and finding its place in the present day.
If you’re looking for the immediate gut reaction brought about by Tidal, this is not the album for you. It takes more than a listen or two before you really begin to absorb The Idler Wheel, but eventually you’ll encounter an artist who is complicated and dark, but strong in the self-acceptance that has come from repeatedly analysing one’s own character traits.
This isn’t the sullen girl of 1996, but a woman confident in her flaws. Down the line you may not rediscover this album the way you’re drawn to her debut every so often, but for any Fiona Apple fan The Idler Wheel is not to be missed.
Asad Khawaja hosts Moonlight Mile Thursdays 10pm to 12 midnight on CityFM89