The Idler Wheel…
42:39 min • Clean Slate / Epic • June 19, 2012
One of the most difficult things you can admit to as an adult is that you’re to blame.
When relationships end, as they invariably do, the tendency is to lay the blame on the other person, despite the fact that in most break ups both people are responsible for its demise. Those of us that are realistic and self-aware can acknowledge the part we’ve had to play in the break up – the honest “it’s not you, it’s me” rather than the excuse. This sort of self-aware honesty has always permeated the music of New York born singer songwriter Fiona Apple, and as she releases her long awaited 4th studio album, it’s clear that very little has changed.
Don’t let me ruin me,
I might need a chaperone –
she sings on ‘Daredevil’, over a cabaret piano and rolling drums, and I realise that while the rest of the world is agreeing with Adele that men are bastards, there’s always someone in the corner acknowledging “yes they are – but so am I”. Then, there’s always been something different about Fiona Apple. While on holiday with my parents when I was 15 I found a copy of the CD single for ‘Shadowboxer’ in a small record shop. I’d heard Fiona Apple’s name (years before Madonna had discussed her on Radio One) and was entranced by this beautiful but self styled “sullen girl” on the cover. I bought Tidal, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Apple’s trademark style has developed over the years, from the pop beginnings of Tidal to the mature abstract sound of When The Pawn… (the full title of the album was a poem). Her last album, Extraordinary Machine, was mostly clouded in controversy due to the original production being completely scrapped after it was leaked online – the album was reproduced from scratch by Mike Elizondo and the official released versions of the songs, surfacing in 2005, almost came as a hybrid between the sounds of the first two albums. Extraordinary Machine was alternative Jazz with pop melodies, with a little Punk Cabaret thrown in, and in my opinion Fiona’s best work to date. That was until I heard latest album, officially titled The Idler Wheel Is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do.
The first sonic glimpse of the album was single and opener ‘Every Single Night’, a foray into the Apple of old. Trademark sharp lyrics,
My heart’s made of parts of all that surround me,
And that’s why the devil just can’t get around me,
Every single nights a fight with my brain –
and an insanely catchy chorus that has an almost guttural yearning. The video, with its visions of Paris, snails and an octopus hat, is typically eccentric. The rest of the album follows suit, managing to be quintessentially Apple whilst still bringing us something new.
The frenetic ‘Left Alone’, with its long tribal drum intro and it’s manic piano, has Fiona laying herself bare.
How can I ask anyone to love me when all I do is beg to be loved
she asks, as the music shifts from the frantic to the mournful, and then back to the frantic. ‘Werewolf’ could describe every relationship I’ve ever had, and the lyrics speak for themselves.
I could liken you to a Werewolf the way you left me for dead,
But I admit that I provided a full moon –
We all have a tendency to acknowledge our own evolution in being treated badly, and this plaintive waltz ballad articulates that perfectly. Elsewhere, we’re given gloriously disturbing imagery of unrequited love in ‘Valentine’, a direct insight into her relationship with writer and amateur boxer Jonathan Ames is ‘Jonathan’, and someone’s complexity which is becoming boring in ‘Periphery’. To be honest, the album doesn’t have highlights – because it’s just all so damn good. ‘Hot Knife’, a swing song that starts with a tribal beat and classic Apple lyrics,
If I’m butter then he’s a hot knife –
before descending into tight Andrews Sisters style harmony, sets itself apart by being the most different and innovative in style, but none of these 10 songs are bad.
This collection of songs is raw Apple at her finest, the production is understated but drum heavy, largely due to the album being coproduced with drummer Charlie Drayton, who is a member of Fiona’s live band. He would play drum tracks, and she would use those as a starting block for the creation of the songs. The resulting album is beautifully bare, almost live sounding in places, allowing you to focus on the confessional lyrics, the wonderfully erratic piano parts and the driving percussion. In places, Fiona’s decision to produce with Charlie does lead to some over-long drum intros (most noticeably on tracks like ‘Jonathan’ and ‘Left Alone’, the intro to the latter almost sounding like it could have been a collaboration with Trent Reznor) but for the most part its a successful partnership, making the songs sound visceral and urgent.
Listening to The Idler Wheel… is a strangely cathartic experience. It’s self aware in its self deprecation, and some of the lyrics almost hold a mirror up to my life, and more so than other Fiona Apple albums. I’ll need to be in a safe place when I listen to this – it’s the sonic equivalent to an emotional breakdown when it gets you in the right place. It’s not an easy ride, so powerful is its effect that at times it felt like the darker side of my own emotions pouring out in song form, and I’m not sure it will gain her any new fans. It is, however, brilliantly written, and the proof that however long it takes for her to make an album, the result will always be worth every second.
(Preferably not another 7 years, though!)