Fiona Apple is best classified as an eccentric. She’s been that way ever since her first album Tidal came out in 1996 and the video for “Criminal” was damaged, dark, skeletal, and above all memorable. That record and song catapulted her to a level of fame that isn’t handled well by everyone, let alone 19-year-olds with a history of mental and physical trauma. So you get awards show speeches claiming that the “world is bullshit” and tours get cancelled because of “personal family problems.” Even though she returned in 1999 with her sophomore album When the Pawn… which only further solidified her already large fan base, incidents like her meltdown at a show in NYC persisted to the point where she pretty much vanished entirely from the public eye. She said in interviews years later that she thought about retiring from music, and probably would have had things gone a little differently.
What wound up happening was that Apple recorded a number of songs with her friend Jon Brion in 2002-3, and the tracks were submitted to her label shortly thereafter. It’s still unclear if Sony refused to release the Extraordinary Machine album because it wasn’t commercially viable, or because Apple herself asked them not to because she was unhappy with how the songs turned out. Nevertheless tracks leaked onto the internet anyways in 2004 and 2005, and fans finding out the album had already been completed, launched a “Free Fiona” campaign to give it a proper release. Apple says she was moved by the fan support, and Mike Elizondo was brought in to officially complete the record, rebuilding many of the old tracks from scratch and producing a couple new ones as well. Despite lacking a true single, Extraordinary Machine still did reasonably well for her, selling almost half a million copies. Tours with Coldplay and Damien Rice kept her busy through much of 2006, and after a string of dates with Nickel Creek in 2007 she once again retreated into the darkness, nobody knowing exactly when or if we’d see or hear from her again.
One of Apple’s favorite things to do in L.A. is dropping in and playing a set at Largo, which she’s done a number of times. Jon Brion has a weekly residency there, and she’ll show up and mess around with him. She was performing there last November and after a fan asked if she’d play something new, she said she couldn’t remember how to play anything off her new album because it’s been done for a year. Recalling the mess leading up to Extraordinary Machine, things moved a bit quicker this time. No demos were leaked and no tracks were re-cut. Epic Records head L.A. Reid promised in January that the album would be out soon, and five months later here we are. The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do is not the longest title Apple has ever affixed to one of her records, but it’s still more of a mouthful to say compared to anything else released recently. This fourth long player has her teaming up with percussionist and producer Charley Drayton to make a raw and uncompromising collection of songs the likes of which she’s never quite done before. It’s not a huge directional shift that’s set to redefine her trademark sound, but a few small adjustments have been made to emphasize her particular strengths that much more.
Apple could well have gotten away with making The Idler Wheel… an entirely a capella record, and judging by the way most of the songs progress, that’s probably how it started anyways. Her voice comes first, percussion second, and piano or other instrumental flourishes third. Such an emphasis on singing means she can wrench every single painful or joyous moment out of a lyric and push it straight into your own heart. On opening track “Every Single Night,” her voice quivers and lowers to almost a whisper when singing the lines, “I just wanna feel everything.” There’s an almost childlike innocence about it, one that’s carefully balanced against her riled up anger in the chorus, as she practically shouts, “Every single night’s a fight with my brain.” Much of the record does find her battling with her personal demons. “Don’t let me/ruin me/I may need a chaperone,” she ominously sings on “Daredevil”. Those feelings only spiral down further as the song progresses, and eventually she throws a temper tantrum, demanding, “Look at! Look at! Look at! Look at me!” with such throatiness you can envision tears of anguish streaming down her face. Yet in spite of the emotions that bleed through her voice, on “Left Alone” she claims to be more in control of those things than ever. “I don’t cry when I’m sad anymore,” she confesses with a calm and even-toned demeanor that nearly betrays the scat-jazz melody built around it. Mentally drained from searching for a reason for her solitude, Apple ultimately concludes she’s sabotaging herself. “How can I ask anyone to love me/when all I do is beg to be left alone,” she cries out.
When she’s not eviscerating herself over her own perceived flaws, Apple largely sticks to the familiar topic of good relationships gone bad. Of course when you tear up your voice yelling lines like, “I ran out of white doves’ feathers to soak up the hot piss that comes from your mouth every time you address me,” as she does on “Regret,” there’s nothing familiar or normal about it. Things don’t get much better on “Valentine,” where the sprightly chorus has the lines, “I root for you/I love you,” but the verses detail a love that has gone stale. “While you were watching someone else/I stared at you and cut myself,” she bemoans somberly. Not everything on The Idler Wheel… is sad, angry or disturbing though. The piano melody of “Jonathan” brings with it feelings of dread, but the lyrics are tender and sweet. Apple wrote the song about her ex-boyfriend Jonathan Ames and has nothing but nice things to say about him. “Werewolf” is in essence a break-up song, but it puts a positive spin on things by taking an equal blame perspective and a bright outlook for the future, where “We could still support each other/all we gotta do is avoid each other.” The sound of children playing that comes in near the end of the track emphasizes the somewhat playful vibe but also adds a tinge of sadness as an expression of lost youth, innocence and a time when love was the easiest and most organic thing in the world. Similar qualities are taken on by “Anything We Want,” which is uncharacteristically optimistic at the start of a relationship that really could go anywhere. Closing track “Hot Knife” builds off that vibe in an even more celebratory way. As Apple gushes over a great relationship, harmonies build atop one another in an off-kilter fashion, each singing a different part of the song until it’s a bird’s nest of voices and you can barely make out a word. The drums fade, and the last 30 seconds are just those vocals alone, each one competing for your attention and representing the many sides of Fiona Apple.
Vocals and lyrics aside, one of the biggest keys to the success of The Idler Wheel… is Drayton’s percussion work. He gets extremely inventive with how the rhythms are put together on the album, quite literally pulling from the kitchen sink for inspiration. When some artists say they experimented with percussion outside of traditional drums by hitting objects they found around the house, you can’t always tell that’s the case. Given the sparse arrangements on this album though, every bit comes through with forceful purpose. Light double taps on a bass drum mimic a heartbeat on “Valentine.” The rhythmic push and pull on “Jonathan” could very well be that of an office copy machine spitting out page after page just slightly offset from the driving piano melody. Shoes scraping against pavement create the march-like pace on the sprightly “Periphery,” and “Anything We Want” features pots and pans and a host of other hollow metal objects being tapped with a stick. The album credits also mention that a pillow was hit for percussionary purposes as well, however it’s not exactly clear when and where that happens (not that it matters). All of it contributes to the record’s unique charms, of which there are many. Apple has never made an album quite like this before, and it represents a seismic shift in the way we perceive her both professionally and personally. She’s still the same unbalanced and somewhat damaged girl we met over 15 years ago, but now more than ever she’s in control of her demons. A new sense of freedom comes along with that, and she takes full advantage of it. Those looking for the next “Criminal” or “Fast As You Can” will be left sorely disappointed. But if you pay close attention to the lyrics and allow yourself to fully engage with these songs, you’ll find a wealth of power, beauty, anger and tragedy poured out with the intent of reaching even the most hardened of hearts. It might not be the easiest thing to listen to, but nothing this brilliant ever is.