Review: Fiona Apple: The Idler Wheel...

Fiona Apple's first album in seven years is an explosion of brilliant, jarring, high-stakes ambition from the singer-songwriter. Whatever she is now, this is not your old Fiona.

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

out on 6.19

Stream | MP3 | CD


Fiona Apple’s new album has been designed to straighten your spine, to exasperate you a bit.  This thorny collection of discordant melodies and spare, acoustic compositions is by far her least accessible work. It contains exactly zero hit singles. Compared to the lushness of her three previous albums, the record sounds like ten demoes gone awry. Apple and her collaborator Charley Drayton have reduced her music to its potent essence. Naturally, it’s called The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do.

But you knew that already.

After all, we’re in the midst of a Fiona frenzy. L.A. Reid kicked it off earlier this year when he added a three-word stinger – “Welcome back Fiona!” – to an otherwise bland tweet. Apple’s SXSW show in March, her first outside of Los Angeles in years, and the short tour that followed, only intensified the anticipation. Videos of Apple, revitalized and tearing through her hits and three new songs, instantly circulated on the web. Excitement turned to a near craze as each new album detail was followed by advance tracks and some trulyilluminatinginterviews. (Do yourself a favor and read them after you finish this.)

Nothing counters overheated expectations and a seven-year hiatus like a change in the conversation. The Idler Wheel is as stark a break from its predecessor Extraordinary Machine as When the Pawn was from Tidal. In both cases Apple cannily chose the right producer to take her prodigious talent in a fresh direction. Longtime friend Jon Brion helped Apple transition into artistic sophistication by arranging the hell out of her songs on When the Pawn and the first draft of Extraordinary Machine. Both were marvels of lavish instrumentation and winding counter-melodies. Though Michael Elizondo’s official version of Extraordinary Machine was cleaner, he didn’t stray too far from Brion’s template.

Speaking of which: remember the debate over which version of Extraordinary Machine was superior? It seems even sillier after hearing The Idler Wheel. Both versions now sound indistinguishable. A virtuoso percussionist, Charley Drayton thinks in terms of lean structures, of bone, muscle, and sinew. He is the anti-Brion.

The Idler Wheel is foremost a showcase for Fiona Apple, performer. Her voice and words form the core of the album, with loose connective tissue provided by Drayton’s free-jazz beats and some random ambient-noise samples. Apple’s rounded contralto trembles and shrieks, it needles and assaults. That full range is on display on “Regret,” almost all at once during its startling chorus. “Hot Knife” closes the album with a rare delicacy: Apple and her sister Maude Maggart, vamping in a vocal hall of mirrors.

While Fiona Apple has reached a new peak as a vocalist, she has also further matured as a lyricist. Her lyrics used to tend toward showiness; now they are simple, direct. For example, the delicate balance of blame that turns to acceptance on “Werewolf.” There’s still plenty of bile and tumult (mental distress births a second Fiona, Alien-style, on “Every Single Night”) to go around. But much of her anger is now turned inward (“How can I ask anyone to love me when all I do is beg to be left alone?”). Breakups can lead to wisdom (“Nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key”). The future even holds the potential for love (“Anything We Want” is basically Apple’s rewrite of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”) or at least rowdy sex (again, “Hot Knife”).

Listen, all this talk of Fiona Apple’s artistry and all that jazz (literally) shouldn’t obscure the fact that after you’ve digested The Idler Wheel’s off-kilter song structures, the album reveals itself to be a riot. Apple’s collaboration with Drayton is thrilling, a trapeze act without a horn-and-string-laden net. Though it’s as rhythmic as anything Fiona has done since When the Pawn (read “Fast As You Can” and the extended drum interlude on “Limp”), beneath the clattering drums, thigh slaps, screaming schoolchildren, and bottle-factory sounds you find the usual gorgeous melodies. The Idler Wheel wouldn’t be a Fiona Apple album without one or two moments of transcendence, which in the past have included the likes of “Criminal,” “Paper Bag,” and “Extraordinary Machine.” Good company, indeed. “Every Single Night,” which opens the album as a sort of statement of purpose, is a celeste-driven lullaby (wouldn’t you know it?) that percolates to a boom. The Idler Wheel climaxes on “Anything We Want.” It’s an unabashed love song, a first for Apple. Some string chords and a warm piano melody provide the song with the swoon it deserves, spare production be damned. I have a hunch it’s Jon Brion’s favorite track too.

“The lava of the volcano shot up hot from under the sea,” Fiona Apple sings on “Werewolf.” “One thing leads to another and you made an island of me.” It took a while, a pop-music eternity actually. After sixteen years, Apple has finally reached her megaton moment. The Idler Wheel is her ferocious eruption. Eventually the molten mess cools and the smoke dissipates. All that's left is a lovely crag, a shard of paradise, a jagged masterpiece.

Listen to 'The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do' in full here.

Fiona Apple The Idler Wheel... Giveaway

We're giving away a Deluxe CD/DVD Package of The Idler Wheel..., which includes the album in a 40-page book filled with Fiona's lyrics, drawings, sketches and photographs. The DVD contains footage of Fiona performing five songs live from her first tour in 5 years, shot at SXSW/Austin in March '12. To enter, tell us what your favorite Fiona Apple song is in the comments below. Make sure you keep up with us on Facebook or on Twitter.