Fiona Apple’s fourth album is a marvel.
Driven by rhythms reminiscent of a truck stripped of gears, it careens nonetheless over enlivened hills and desperate valleys, crackling at one point with the literal noise of gravel underfoot. At the wheel, maintaining steady imbalance, is Apple’s voice. Her preceding record, Extraordinary Machine, was a fine effort, transcending the worthiness of her debut, reaching not quite the heights of her exquisite When The Pawn…. That preceding title, though, despite that LP’s gift of a title track, is far more apt a description here. All sinew, lean muscle and dexterous vocality, this latest effort churns, whirs, slows in release and accelerates in exhilaration. No wonder this performer, indeed extraordinary, declared herself a machine. No wonder that, this time around, she declares herself “The Idler Wheel.” She spins to endless effect. She cannot be stopped, the years between her releases a mirage. These are songs propelled by an unstoppable human body–not least, a throttling mind, and a throbbing heart.
Her technical allusions are not misleading. Instrumental percussives on tracks like “Valentine”–inverting a title with such romantic implications–crash through her listless piano arias, sounding not at all unlike the machinery within a factory crackling through the outdated radio of a dreamy line-worker. Her vocals, their lyrics considered and undeniable with poeticism, unspool nonetheless as if their singer were muttering, asleep, knee-deep in dreams, neck-deep in nightmares. “Left Alone,” a theoretical declaration of needed independence, is downright unhinged, all unceasing swirls, clanging pentatonic scales, as all the while Apple wonders “How can I ask anyone to love me?”, degrading personal shortcomings with all the bathos of a girl on the verge of a hysterical laughing jag. “I don’t cry when I’m sad anymore,” she seems to accede, before powering her voice to a falsetto flittering, somehow, both the words “calcify” and “tummy.” That kind of contrast personifies the dichotomy that makes her Idling Wheel a kind of magnificent; even if at times her croon reminds us, of course, of “Shadowboxer,” “Criminal,” “Love Ridden,” and other unimpeachable achievements, she’s quick to ice the cake with startling one-liners like “We can still support each other, so long as we avoid each other.”
Throughout the source of that irresistible couplet, “Werewolf,” Apple compares a former lover to the titular beast of fantasy, while blaming herself for calling upon the “full moon” and “bleeding wound” that drove him to transform, not to mention includes a reference, “the lava of a volcano/shot up hot from under the sea,” that is undeniable in its deep eroticism. That couplet prefacing he gobsmacking play-on-words “I could liken you to a werewolf…I could liken you to a shark…I could liken you to a chemical…I liken you a lot of things.” (Those who’ve seen Underworld: give it a second.) And still, the defining sentiment of the poem lies elsewhere, murmured, content, on repeat as “Werewolf” concludes: “Nothin’ wrong when a song/ends in a minor key.”
That’s all in one song.
The Idler Wheel… is rich with moments like “Werewolf.” Creations that widen the eyes, startle the ears, only to be bested by invention just as remarkable, equal in innovation, as the record’s punch follows through. With this album, Fiona Apple, object of fan adoration and observer curiosity, stakes her claim as a defining craftswoman of her musical generation. Equal parts Van Dyke Parks, Tori Amos, Sheryl Crow and Liz Phair (amongst so many others), she outsquirms the most abnormal of the norm. Pained while brimming with exuberance, syncopated even as its anchored by a voice of traditional beauty, this is an album of absolute note. If appreciative ears are the butter, she’s the hot knife. Here’s hoping another seven years doesn’t pass between this and Apple’s next release, but, if that’s what’s required, should her gears keep turning at whatever unusual rate they require to produce, the interim will be worth the wait.
At the time of this review’s publication, The Idler Wheel… is available in free, full-stream form courtesy of NPR. Giving it a listen is, ahem, somewhat recommended.
For the record, the album’s official title is The Idler Wheel Is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do.