Fiona Apple, ‘The Idler Wheel…’ – Album Review
If you’ll forgive the amateur psychoanalysis, permit the following observations: For all of her complexities, Fiona Apple is simple. She wants to be loved and accepted. Intensely intelligent and continually wounded, her finest work — like the present ‘Idler Wheel’ — traces the complexities of relationships within and between us. These 10 lean songs exhibit a genius at her most restrained, most effective and most vulnerable.
While the full title of ‘The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do,’ is verbose, Apple’s fourth studio album is unerringly stark. Essentially a collaboration between her keys and voice and percussionist Charley Drayton, each song is spare in arrangement, but each is also markedly full — of emotional charge, of efficient lyric, of economic instrumentation. These are minor key journeys through the forests of Apple’s internal life. With growing maturity, she’s begun to find her way.
This is reassuring. Anyone who has laid awake awash in insecurity can relate to the opener ‘Every Single Night,’ in which she bellows a chorus of “every single night is a fight with my brain.” Wounded and brilliant, Apple fulfills the ideal of the tortured artist, extended metaphors tumbling out sideways on ‘Daredevil’: “Say I’m an airplane and the gashes I got from my heartbreak / Make the slots on the flaps upon my wing, and I use them to give me lift” (and later: “hip, hip for the drag”). As the aerodynamics lesson suggests, her intellect constantly reexamines itself. In ‘Valentine,’ she’s comparing herself to a still life, recalling a dinner date where her tears seasoned every plate. These are extended sessions of recrimination, internal and external.
Most of these tracks are sung in the second person, addressing some absentee male. ‘Jonathan’ was written for her ex-boyfriend, the drunk chic Jonathan Ames, whom she prefers to watch live rather than living herself. Coming halfway through the listen, ‘Left Alone’ has the album’s lynchpin and thesis, the tremulous questions of “How can I ask anyone to love me when all I do is beg to be left alone?” This is the crux of the whole armchair therapy that discussion of this record provokes: What would it take for our neurotic goddess to sustain a loving relationship?
The answer, of course, is a work in progress. In ‘Werewolf,’ she observes that she provides the lycanthrope the full moon, in ‘Periphery’ she loathes being cast aside for someone with a silly side and in ‘Regret’ she does the monstrous howling herself. But she also can be tender: ‘Anything We Want’ sketches kisses along her neck, and ‘Hot Knife’ is wobbly-kneed joy, comparing her relationship with that of a knife and a bed of butter.
‘The Idler Wheel’ is so saturated with the booms and busts of heart and mind that to listen deeply is to become entangled in a relationship. She’s giving all of herself here. To her listeners, at least, she is adored and accepted.