Available on: Epic LP
Reading the press response to Fiona Apple’s fourth studio album, her first in seven years, one would be forgiven for imagining the singer to be on the edge of a breakdown. “Fiona Apple’s album revels in her misery,” proclaimed the Houston Chronicle dramatically; meanwhile, the NME breathlessly exclaimed that “the lyrics…emerge from a bottomless pit of despair”. It’s not a description that’s borne out by the actual record. But then, Apple is no stranger to media misrepresentation, having been bizarrely lumped in with the likes of Alanis Morissette on her 1996 emergence despite their near-total lack of aesthetic overlap, and subsequently characterised as a kook-cum-brat-cum-crazy lady – a label that only obscured her formidable, singular talent.
The odd reactions to The Idler Wheel… can be partly attributed to the long-standing inability of the mainstream music press to get to grips with female singer-songwriters in general. But it’s also because the discomfiting catharsis which dominated alternative music during the early years of Apple’s career has long fallen out of fashion. Her artistic gaze has always been an inward-facing one: her detractors’ long-standing charge of self-absorption isn’t entirely inaccurate, but misses the point that the way in which she’s untangled her own emotions has consistently been both compelling and resonant. An insight into Apple’s brain has often seemed like an insight into the human condition. But is the idea of getting down and dirty in one’s own psyche, refusing to fall into an archetype but intently excavating the mess of memories and motivations that comprise the self, just too unsettling in an age when indie culture’s idea of baring one’s soul consists mostly of Instagrammed nostalgia™ or manic pixie dream girls?
Judging from The Idler Wheel..., Apple is neither crazy nor drowning in misery. It’s by turns playful, pained, sarcastic, lustful, difficult and a good deal more – often all in the same song. It’s somehow both her most awkward and most relaxed record to date. Gone is the ornate, rococo music that marked Apple’s time with former producer Jon Brion; gone are the straightforward piano ballads that leavened her previous albums. Instead, Apple has unleashed the latent latter-day Tom Waits spirit that had always been an underlying presence in the outer edges of her work. The Idler Wheel… is full of sparse, herky-jerky arrangements that refuse to settle into easy patterns: restlessly crashing drums and percussion, melodies broken up and stretched out to their limits, odd intruding details of celeste, autoharp and bouzouki, more confrontational vocals than Apple has ever essayed before. ‘Jonathan’ sounds as though it was constructed out of the broken remains of a smashed-up dolls’ house; ‘Periphery’ closes with footsteps shuffling through gravel; as drums pitter-patter and a piano clanks and rumbles on ‘Daredevil’, Apple’s close-miced voice demands your attention like an obstreperous voice in your own head. “Seek me out!…I’m all the fishes in the sea,” she bellows, before embarking on a defiant flounce down the scale on the song’s chorus.
On the album’s jaw-dropping highlight, ‘Hot Knife’, Apple and her sister, Maude Maggart, harmonise a lustful paean to a paramour in three-part rounds over tympani rolls like distant thunder. It’s a delight and a thrill, oscillating between sense-scrambling confusion and deeply satisfying resolution – so tactile that you can hear the sisters’ lips smacking and tongues clicking on their consonants. And, from Apple’s libidinous exclamation of “I get feisty!” to the visual overload of the line “He makes my heart a cinemascope screen – showing a dancing bird of paradise”, it’s hardly a song that bears out the depiction of Apple as a gloomy sister of woe.
Not that Apple doesn’t return repeatedly to the persistent itch of her own character flaws. But as her career has progressed, this is something she has done with increasing wry acceptance that’s a far cry from the self-loathing her teenage self laid bare back in 1996 – and in this regard, The Idler Wheel… is her most adult work yet, a record that’s underpinned by the fundamental grown-up characteristic of embracing one’s own ridiculous, stubborn dysfunction because, Hell, what other option is there? On the frenetic Tin Pan Alley jaunt of ‘Left Alone’, Apple claims both unloveability and inability to love, but it’s the wink and the eye-roll and the sarcastic humour with which she does so that sticks. Not to mention Apple’s knack for verbosity in full, witty flow: as opening couplets go, “You made your major overtures when you were a sure and orotund mutt / And I was still a dewy petal, rather than a moribund slut” is an all-time great. Elsewhere, when Apple pores over the ruins of broken relationships (‘Regret’, ‘Valentine’), it’s as much to fire a final few zings as to examine her own self-pity.
The Idler Wheel… is riven with disappointment, dissatisfaction and difficulty – but it’s also full of moments where Apple subtly adjusts the mirror to view herself from a different angle. This is exemplified by ‘Every Single Night’, on which a gently twinkling music box underpins a song that morphs from lullaby to sea shanty and back. As eloquent descriptions of mental torture go, it’s extraordinarily elegant: “That’s where the pain comes in / like a second skeleton / trying to fit beneath the skin / I can’t fit the feelings in,” Apple sings carefully, as though taking care not to shatter. But the explanation winds up being the most life-affirming realisation of all: “I just wanna feel everything,” she slowly repeats. What greater experience could there be?
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