Fiona Apple : The Idler Wheel Is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do

Written by Matt Colvin

July 2, 2012

After seven excruciatingly long years, Fiona Apple is back, in a serious way…

 

The 23-word title, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do, may seem a tad excessive, but is not an unusual thing for Fiona. When the title of her 1999 release, When The Pawn …,  contained 90 words total, it earned her a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for, you guessed it, longest album title. Apple initially burst onto the music scene when she was just 19 years old, releasing her debut album Tidal in 1996, making a huge first impression on the world with her first single and accompanying controversial music video “Criminal.” This marks her first full-length album since 2005′s Extraordinary Machine. Needless to say, fans have been drooling in anticipation since the announcement of her return in late 2010.

This time around, Fiona took a simplistic approach to this record, aside from the lyrics, of course. Much of the new material is stripped down to just vocals, piano, and a wide range of odd percussion. While guitar and upright bass are present, they’re used sparingly throughout.

The experience begins with the first single, “Every Single Night,” an eerie, slow-paced, curious piece of music. Containing hardly any instrumentation at first, aside from very gentle vocals and notes from what sounds like an old children’s piano. This song (like much of Fiona’s work) may require multiple listens to fully appreciate. The inarticulate may have a difficult time with this album, as well. Fiona is known for using obscure words, terms, and phrases within her intricate lyrics. Even at 19 she displayed wit, intelligence and songwriting abilities far beyond her musical peers. This aspect of her songwriting has not changed a bit.  “Daredevil” is a fine example, picking up the pace with her signature stop/start piano style, accompanied by wild percussion. It is a playful, interesting composition and an early highlight from the new material.

“Valentine” begins with the sound of a heart beating, and the music itself progresses beautifully until the very last note. It is one of the most enthralling tracks on the album, and the arrangement is all over the place. Not unlike much of her work, old or new, it’s fun, romantic, and sad all at the same time. Few artists can properly fit so many emotions into one piece of music, and Apple seems to accomplish this again and again. The supposedly “controversial” song on the album, ”Jonathan,” is ironically aimed at author Jonathan Ames (Apple’s ex-boyfriend). It’s unbelievably personal, almost as if it was not meant to be heard by anyone. The chorus itself sums up the rather bleak gist of the song with the line “I don’t want to talk about anything.”"Left Alone” is just plain brilliant, and harkens back to her work on previous albums. The first sounds heard are nothing but heavy, sporadic drums, which are seemingly incoherent at first until the drumming stops abruptly making way for the powerfully menacing piano riff. The tempo changes drastically, starting out fast,  then slowing down, only to pick right back up again. Within the seemly arrangement, Apple sincerely expresses the fact that she simply just wants to be left alone.

“Werewolf” is one of the most moving cuts, with an explosive display of the power and range she possesses vocally. The most forcible moment, musically and lyrically, is when she sings, “The lava of a volcano, shot up hot from under the sea. One thing leads to another, and you’ve made an island of me.” Next up is one of the more up-beat selections The Idler Wheel… has to offer, a little tune called ”Periphery.” The overall sound is quite similar to some of Fiona’s previous work (compared to the majority of this album). It provides a fun and infectious piano riff that’s repeated throughout each verse. It’s incredibly catchy and humorously childish, Apple singing, “You let me down, I don’t even like you anymore at all.” ”Regret” brims with raw emotion via shockingly loud, scratchy vocals. Fiona practically screams the chorus, with a gravelly element to her voice that’s never been heard in any of her previous work. She demonstrates a strong semblance of bitterness within the intriguing lyrics.

Following the melodramatic subject matter contained in the previous tracks comes a purely joyful song. A happy, inspirational, pro-love anthem called ”Anything We Want.” “Hot Knife” is best described as, well, weird. It’s in-your-face tribal madness, with chaotic layered vocals until the very end. It’s essentially a fun little duet between Fiona and her sister, Maude Maggart, who sings the high parts of the layered harmonies. Possibly the most eccentric piece of music Apple has ever created, it is full of silly metaphors, along with bits of classical piano, and really simple drumming. It is an impeccable way to close out such an astonishing sonic masterpiece.

The Idler Wheel … is substantially different from Fiona’s previous work, although she maintains the key elements that made fans fall in love with her in the late ‘90s.  After all this time, after all she’s been through, she’s still here, still strong, and still making incredible music for herself and her devoted fan-base. She still has the voice of an angel, and it sounds better than ever.

The Idler Wheel… is out now on Epic Records.