The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Chords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
It can’t possibly be 16 years since Fiona Apple busted on the scene with her mesmerizing talent and uncanny ability to polarize, can it? Maybe the reason it doesn’t seem that long is that she hasn’t released all that much music in that span; her newest, saddled by a typically wordy Apple title, is just the fourth full-length of her career.
When last we heard her, it was 2005’s Extraordinary Machine, an album in which Apple shuffled between ornate pop and driving, rhythm-based music to produce an unmitigated triumph. The passing time seems to have spurred on her penchant for challenging her listeners because The Idler Wheel (get a preview here) is a far cry from the piano-driven combination of jazz and indie rock she once peddled on hits like “Criminal” and “Sleep To Dream.”
This album is largely a collaboration between Apple and percussionist Charley Drayton; the two co-produced the album and handle most of the instrumentation. The songs they create often embrace chaos and always seem to be on the brink of spinning out of control. They are also stark and raw, usually consisting of little more than Apple’s piano and whatever homemade percussion Drayton can conjure.
In the past, Apple’s stark confessionals were always buffered somewhat by soothing music and plentiful hooks. Here, she is largely unadorned, and it ratchets up the impact of her lacerating lyrics. The degree of difficulty she is attempting is extremely high, yet the results are often startlingly good.
Opening song “Every Single Night” starts off to the delicate strains of a celeste, but it soon lurches into a primal chorus, with the singer chanting, “Every single night’s a fight/With my brain.” It’s a fight from which she won’t back away; As she sings later in the song, “I just want to feel everything.”
Feeling is a key element to this album, since it has a visceral power that goes beyond the words and melodies. “Jonathan” conjures up a bumpy train ride with a former lover not so much through the lyrics but through the incongruous percussion and lurching rhythm. “Left Alone” features the singer at her most verbose, considering she manages to rhyme “orotund mutt” with “moribund slut,” but the lasting memory of the song is Apple’s quivering, unhinged voice singing, “How can I ask anyone to love me/When all I do is beg to be left alone.”
Apple does a stellar job throughout of detailing the mixed emotions that accompany the fallout of a broken relationship. On “Valentine,” which skips from forlorn verses to a kicky chorus, she chides herself for being unable to let go of a doomed affair. “Werewolf,” which is perhaps the most straightforward thing here musically, builds to a lovely chorus in which the singer admits that a romantic flame-out isn’t always the worst thing, especially if the pair was combustible together: “Nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key.”
The album keeps surprising from one song to the next, peaking with the stunning “Regret,” which, with its chunky beat and ever-descending chords, broods like a vintage Peter Gabriel track. That is, until Apple explodes with a searing condemnation of the unfortunate yahoo in her crosshairs; it makes Dylan’s “Idiot Wind” sounds like a thank-you card by comparison.
If there’s have a quibble with the album, it’s that the last two songs break the spell a bit. “Anything We Want” and “Hot Knife” find the singer ready to jump in to a new love, physically and emotionally. Normally, we’d appreciate the change of pace, but Apple walks such a thrilling tightrope of rancor, self-recrimination, and resilience over the first eight songs that the sudden shift in temperament is a bit hard to swallow.
Like an open wound, The Idler Wheel isn’t always pretty, but it pulses with life, brutal and true. Let’s just hope that Apple doesn’t wait so long next time to challenge us all again.