According to Apple, the concept behind the title The Idler Wheel is wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords will serve you more than Ropes will ever do is hard to explain but has to do with the idea of “being still in the middle of everything else but being able to feel everything.” The idler wheel is the gear that does no work, drives no shafts. “It doesn’t look like it’s doing anything, but I feel like it’s connected to everything,” she says. It’s about how she feels inside the machine of her own life and career. It’s about how she marks time.
She read about whipping cords, which are used to bind and repair frayed ropes, in “this book about boating that was at my last boyfriend’s house.” The idea is less about avoiding mistakes than learning how to cope with them. “You’re gonna get punched and blown around,” she says. She looks over my shoulder into the empty restaurant, tries to figure out how to express what she wants to express. “What’s valuable is to know how to make something out of that.” Apple has had a lot of years to learn.
She made Idler Wheel over a few scattered months in 2009 and 2010 with her touring drummer, Charley Drayton, producing. According to Apple, her label only found out she was working on a new album when she handed it in early this year. Epic executives asked, in the way that executives do, if she thought the record was really finished — if there wasn’t another song, a hit perhaps, still forthcoming. She told them it was finished, that it had to be finished, that the same week she’d finished it she’d broken up with her boyfriend, Jonathan Ames.
She’d thought: “I just finished writing an album. I can’t write an album about you now, about breaking up.” So instead he got a love song, “Jonathan.” She tells me, pointing up toward her hotel room, that she’d been on the phone with Ames right before she came downstairs to meet me, and that they’re still friends. For a while, she was going to leave the song off the record. She called him and said, “Listen, it’s just a practical thing, because if I get another boyfriend, I don’t want to have to deal with, ‘Who’s this Jonathan guy?’ I honestly felt like it’s just going to be the fight that breaks up my next relationship, and it’s not worth it. But then I was like, ‘Ah, fuck it.'”
“Jonathan” is one of only two unequivocal love songs on Idler Wheel. The other, “Anything We Want,” might be the most romantic song Apple has ever written. “I looked like a neon zebra shaking rain off her stripes,” she chants, or rather growls, intoning the lyrics as much as she is singing them. “And the rivulets had you riveted to the places I wanted you to kiss me.” It’s a very Fiona Apple metaphor, delicate and weird and somehow heartbreaking, and a welcome moment of relief in an album that’s mostly about figuring out ways to let go of old loves and old lives.
“I stand no chance of growing up,” she sings on “Valentine.” But Idler Wheel is the most grown-up album she’s ever made. According to Drayton, there isn’t a single electric instrument on it: The entire recording is acoustic. You can hear Apple’s newfound clarity, her resignation, her paradoxical optimism. “Nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key,” she sings on “Werewolf.” And a couple times, as on “Daredevil” or “Regret,” she screams, a full-body scream, over almost as soon as it begins. It is the sound of one world ending and another one right behind it, beginning again.
One advantage, she says, to making four albums in 16 years is that they become like autobiography, each record dividing one phase of life from the next. She says she hated working on Tidal. She spent those sessions doing crosswords under the piano in the Sony building in Manhattan. “I felt ridiculous being in a studio with real musicians, and I felt like everybody hated me. Everybody did hate me.”
When the Pawn…, her second album, went better. “I was more in control, and I felt like I could do what I wanted to do, which is probably a good influence of Paul [Thomas Anderson, director of Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood], who I was with then, because he is — in the best way — cocky. And I think that rubbed off on me. Like ‘Yeah, of course I can do whatever I want.’?”
Extraordinary Machine was cool, but she regrets the way she shoved Jon Brion off the project, though they’re still friends, and he’s apparently never mentioned it.
And then there’s Idler Wheel. “This one I love, even though there’s a lot of pain that I went through during the making of it. I feel very sure of myself. Not that I’m so great, but that I’m right. Nobody can tell me that my song isn’t done,” she says.
She looks up at the writer in front of her.
“Whatever I read in the paper, if somebody says that I’m crazy now? I’m not going to believe it just because they say it.”