Fiona Apple’s first album in seven years, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do, weaves the fierce emotion, poetic lyrics and masterfully constructed compositions of her previous releases with a much more rugged recording style and strong splashes of jazz. The collection is somewhat unexpected and strange, but it’s also exquisitely beautiful and brilliant.
Fiona’s music has always hinted at the rawness of an exposed nerve, but The Idler Wheel… lays it all bare with little evidence of studio production. While there are plenty of stunners, the roughness and eccentricities of the overall recording were a bit jarring the first time around. It’s the first Fiona album that wasn’t obsessive love at first listen. Yet even that initial doubt was mingled with admiration for Fiona’s unusual song structures. The album is unquestionably heavy with artistic brilliance, it merely lacks the immediate listenability of her previous releases.
However, the album turned out to be quite the grower and familiarity has bred great affection. After a few weeks of getting to know and falling in love with these new songs, I wonder why I didn’t connect with it the first time. I say all this only to encourage any old Fiona fans to listen to the album without expectations or preconceptions of what a Fiona Apple album should sound like. There are hints of When the Pawn… and the leaked, Free Fiona-era, Jon Brion demos of Extraordinary Machine, but The Idler Wheel… is truly a unique and incomparable experience.
Fiona’s dark, punchy delivery in the opening verses of “Every Single Night” is about as close to her classic sound as we get here. The howling explosions of “a fight with my brain” make it clear this listening experience will be something else entirely.
“Daredevil” is by far my favorite track. Self-aware lyrics such as “Don’t let me ruin me, I may need a chaperone” reveal a messed up mind and heart hoping for a savior yet proudly insisting on being accepted as is. Every time the song plays, I’m astounded when Fiona hoarsely cries “Seek me out! Look at, Look at, Look at me!” then swiftly slips into a slinky jazz phrasing of “I’m all the fishes in the sea” before unleashing another wail of “Wake me up!“
With quietly heartfelt lyrics like “I’m amorous but out of reach, a still-life drawing of a peach” and subtle splashes of strings, the verses of “Valentine” captivate me. Sadly, though, I still find the repetitive “I root for you, I love you, You, You, You” chorus a bit irksome. And, try as I might, I still don’t like “Jonathan” – inspired by Fiona’s ex, author Jonathan Ames.
Fiona plays a jazzy Garbo in the piano-driven “Left Alone,” which is another favorite of mine.
“Werewolf” begins as a simple post-breakup piano ballad akin to Extraordinary Machine‘s “Parting Gift.” But the chorus heralds change as Fiona’s voice takes on a more passionate tone and is eventually backed by the screams of a concert crowd.
“Periphery” at first seems to be a low-fi but lyrical denunciation of celebrity sycophants before Fiona sets her disdainful sights on a lover’s wandering eye.
“Regret” is another initially understated look at the end of a relationship soon rattled with a full-throated, howling chorus.
The clang and clamor of “Anything We Want” and Fiona’s deadpan vocals are conceptually an odd fit for the song’s seductive lyrics, but the actuality is absolutely superb. A true artist doesn’t give the audience what they want, they give the audience what they didn’t know they want.
Several tracks find Fiona fully embracing the jazz phrasing and instrumentation she only played with in the past. None more so than the surprisingly simple but very effective finale, which features harmonies by Fiona’s jazz singer sister, Maude Maggart. Aside from Fiona eliciting from her piano a sound so akin to the beat, beat, beat of a tom-tom it would do Ella Fitzgerald proud, “Hot Knife” is a sultry, semi-acapella love song.
I think The Idler Wheel… may be Fiona’s Lorca – Tim Buckley’s fan-alienating, experimental masterpiece. The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do may never be my favorite or most played Fiona Apple album, but it’s most certainly her most complex and daring recording. And like the most delicious of acquired tastes, it gets better with every bite.