Review: Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel…

June 21, 2012 No comments yet

Fiona Apple is one of those, seemingly mythical, artists who hasn’t released a bad body of work in her entire career. Now, maybe that’s due to her razor sharp deference to detail and craft, or maybe it’s the six year hiatuses Apple tends to take between albums (or maybe one is the cause or the other). Whatever the case may be, the formula for greatness hasn’t changed much for Fiona amidst the release of her fourth LP in 16 years: Piano or acoustic guitar, backed by emotive, while sparse, percussion and vocal performances that aim directly for the soul. 2005’s Extraordinary Machine saw an expansion in production for Apple, gearing her earnest and anecdotal pathos towards a more colorful canvas. It worked, but that’s not what Fiona’s about nowadays. The mantra that echo’s through the refrain of lead single and opener “Every Single Night” whispers “I just want to feel everything”. That’s what Fiona’s about nowadays, and she sure as hell makes you feel everything.

Contrary to its name, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do is an exercise in subtlety (and only Apple’s second longest album title). Revelatory lyrics have always been Fiona’s niche, and much of The Idler Wheel… uses that penchant without even needing to delve into larger scoped subjects, like on “Sullen Girl” or “I Know”, of the past. It seems, at least from a storytelling standpoint, that Fiona is letting her passion speak for itself, rather than writing the passion into existence. Of course, this isn’t anything new for her, but here it’s more stripped down, with few songs narrowly reaching mid-tempo, otherwise possibly highlighting what might be seen as cliche’s. But, when Fiona pleads “don’t let me ruin me” on “Daredevil”, it’s not uttered like a cliche, and is completely devoid of any irony or acrimony. It’s delivered exactly as it is: a reality.

That bluntness takes a level of honesty that Apple completely owns, and has owned for the entirety of her career. There’s an uneasiness and spontaneity to her songwriting and, in the past, it was Mike Elizondo and John Brion who would try to match that impetuous nature. But, with The Idler Wheel…, Apple enlists her touring drummer Charley Drayton, not so much to add drama, but to match her vehemence and tension. On “Jonathan”, sporadic drum inflections punctuate the dead space, almost proposing an ad-libbed duet with the melody. Conversely, on the next track “Left Alone”, a more conventional 16 time hi-hat and snare roll sets the pace for an, appropriately exacerbated, Apple to map out her sexual frustrations. The most impressive addition from Drayton’s influence here is the organic feeling throughout. “Periphery” features some off-kilter percussion too, but instead of bass and toms, it chest-thumps and thigh-slaps. “Warewolf”, a personal favorite, even features samples of screaming children, for effect. There’s an almost primal nature to some of the instrumentation that compliments Fiona’s guttural hymns.

At just over 40 minutes, The Idler Wheel… flies by. Yet, it never looses any steam or dips in variety and, actually, the latter third of the album features some of the more adventurous songs in Apple’s repertoire. “Regret” is a scathing and vicious ballad that describes a former lovers words as “hot piss”, while somehow never once sounding bitter. There’s a fragmented sense of humor in there, believe it or not. “Anything We Want” marches thoroughly, but precisely, as it layers a congo-like drum cadence on top of timely bass licks and an orchestral piano riff. While some of that may read like a clusterfuck, the restraint shown in its execution is a key factor in why this album never overstays it’s welcome. For a mostly acoustic affair, there’s no lack of sound to be had.

Of course, the gear that keeps all of these parts moving in one direction is Apple herself. There’s never a moment where you don’t believe a word she says. Not even a fleeting chance for some sort of hyperbole. While that’s the most consistent attribute she’s displayed throughout her career, it’s jarring how much more notable that is in the thinning herd of modern day singer-songwriters. Fiona Apple hasn’t reinvented herself once to fit the mold of an album or image. Her albums and images fit the mold of her current state of mind; Whether that be of 19 year old Fiona tromping around half-naked in a dilapidated tract-house, or of 34 year old Fiona covered in squid and snails. Most artists would have to completely alter their method to become the personalities that Apple has occupied. But, Fiona doesn’t have to, she’s all of those personalities at once. An all-encompassing presence who can merely whisper feeling amongst a generation of aimless clamor.

9.6/10

Purchase The Idler Wheel… via iTunes

Fiona Apple – Anything We Want Lyrics
Fiona Apple – Daredevil Lyrics
Fiona Apple – Every Single Night Lyrics
Fiona Apple – Hot Knife Lyrics
Fiona Apple – Jonathan Lyrics
Fiona Apple – Left Alone Lyrics
Fiona Apple – Periphery Lyrics
Fiona Apple – Regret Lyrics
Fiona Apple – Valentine Lyrics
Fiona Apple – Werewolf Lyrics