Release Date: June 19, 2012
It’s hard to imagine that Fiona Apple could fail us now. Sure, she strings us along — the half-dozen years we’ve waited since her last record, Extraordinary Machine, being roughly equivalent to a Pleistocene Epoch in chart pop. Which nearly qualifies The Idler Wheel… as a comeback, and certainly makes it a full reintroduction: Will she suddenly seem all grown-up, mellowed with age, all that writhing and wailing relegated to her years of teen tumult? Did she fall in love, and did it right her somehow? Will she be sage and reflective? Is she even subject to that typical turning-30 ZOMFG sea change, and what, if anything, will wash up?
Plenty. Lest we worry that she’s gotten all Wilco-style mature on us, her fourth album relentlessly reassures us that she’s the same old Fiona, still wilding and Weill-ing out. Who’s complaining (besides her)? Any other version of Fiona would be boring, and if we wanted somnolent piano pop from a satisfied woman, we’d pull out an old Norah Jones record. On “Valentine,” Fiona’s only almost-upbeat song here, she puts it plainly: “I stand no chance of growing up.” Thank the Buddah for the emotional morass that still grips her mind, blurring the line between outpatient and genius.
The pleasures of The Idler Wheel are myriad; the thrill is often vicarious. Fiona, gnashing in her pathos, having long since dropped the outward-calm mask most of the rest of us wear, lets her neuroses fester before taking them out into the light. Her ballads revel in the out-of-balance, ultra-needy sides of herself: On “Jonathan,” crushed and confused by the complexities of adult love, she mewls to her lover to “just tolerate” her. Other people send her reeling, but much of the album is about how reeling is her default mode, and as she sings on “Valentine,” she’s made her peace with it. You don’t want to live through this, per se, but there is something liberating about bearing witness to someone so unrepentantly fucked-up; she is the martyr-saint, crucifying herself so that we might live dramz-free.
We start off sweetly enough. Album opener “Every Single Night” functions as an indexing of sorts, ticking off the pathology of her anxiety, like Joan Didion quoting from her own psychiatric evaluation as a prelude to The White Album, giving a backstory to her systemic unease. As Fiona sings it, the rot stems from her poison mind, then heads south: “Trickle down the spine / Swarm the belly / Swelling to a blaze.” The song quiets down with sweet pointillist figures on a celeste, then roars up with whomping bass and her voice rising to a holler, shuddering from the exertion, pondering the immutability of self while channeling Popeye: “What I am is what I am / ‘Cause I does what I does.” She sounds defiant, soulful.
The Idler Wheel strips her music to its marrow, acoustic and bang-on-the-kitchen-table percussive. It’s a sort of junkyard free jazz, with long, beatless bits bound by crashing, whirring, and whinnying. This homemade quality creates a feeling of genuine urgency, with Apple and collaborator/drummer/co-producer Charley Drayton grabbing hold of whatever was handy and rattling, strumming, and/or pounding it. There is no slinky dance-floor appeal to these songs; you don’t imagine hearing them on the radio, but rather spreading, evangelically, playlist to playlist.
Yes, she’s long since gone Pirate Jenny on the Top 40 world that first beckoned her. The album is sinewy and lean; for all her talk of being at the mercy of her neuroses, perhaps they propel rather than distract her; she’s clearly dialed in here. “Left Alone” is her “Beast of Burden,” picking apart why love just can’t get made; but instead of rhetorically demanding “Ain’t I rich enough?” of some pretty, pretty girl, she’s got a more complex issue: “I can love the same man, in the same bed, in the same city / But not in the same room, it’s a pity.”
For the first time in Apple’s career, the story is her voice — it tells us more than the words it delivers, and she draws on its rawness, splays it right where it catches. She’ll groan in agony in lieu of a hook, but suddenly snaps up to honeyed high notes, just to show that even when she sounds undone — heaving “Gimme! Gimme!” on “Valentine” — she’s far from loose. Because while these visceral throes are breathtaking, the real excitement lies in those little flashes where she shows just how in control she is — the tells of virtuosity and precision. “Daredevil” starts out deceptively rudimentary, but slowly builds in melodic complexity. And “Werewolf,” an ode to bringing out the worst in a lover, begins as a simple progression in a low, warm Carole King spot, proving that Apple can handle a plainly perfect, three-minute pop song with a key change and hooky chorus. But then she sings her fantasy true, stringing out the track out until it veers from confident to creepy, ultimately reaching the final utterance: “Nothing’s wrong when a song ends in a minor key.”
The Idler Wheel is an unvarnished joy, uninterested in dazzling us with clever pop, opting instead to whip Apple’s muse to within an inch of its life. The unexpected triumph lies not in the spectacle of the singer raw-dogging her emotions, but in her total command of the anarchy that results. The demons remain, but her talent prevails.