Album review: The Idler Wheel by Fiona Apple

By Daryn Wright

An entirely acoustic album founded on Apple’s usual vulnerability and honest lyrics

After seven years, Fiona Apple is back, putting her piano-banging hands and sultry voice onto The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do. Apple has made a reputation for herself as being an angsty, sullen girl who sings about fruitless love and predictions of break-ups. But a notable difference between The Idler Wheel and her earlier albums is that Apple seems to have come to terms with her isolation.

“Every Single Night” opens the album with quiet piano keys and slowly builds up as Apple bellows “every single night’s a fight with my brain.” The ups and downs of mellow and frantic seem to reflect Apple’s moodiness, the swirling of contradictory intuitions.

What is remarkable about The Idler Wheel is the paradox that Apple is both more pared down and more powerful than ever before. Produced with Charley Drayton, the album is decidedly unembellished, leaving Apple’s deep voice as the showcase. “Valentine” features Apple on the piano with a deep bass-filled heartbeat in the background, the urgent repetition of “you, you, you.”

“Jonathan” pleads, “just tolerate my little fist tugging on your forest chest,” a response to Apple’s former flame, writer Jonathan Ames. Drayton, also the drummer on the album, provides primal percussion to the song. Apple’s voice, overlapped with piano and drums, creates an almost discordant progression, a few splashes of cymbals intruding from the background. She declares “I don’t want to talk about anything.”

Apple doesn’t create climactic music; the songs arrive and peter away untheatrically, and yet the melodies and honest lyrics are rooted someplace ignored by most other musical acts. Genre is slippery, indecipherable. There is a madness running throughout, and this madness translates as the rhythms running through Apple’s brain. She is a self-professed introvert, rarely interacting with other people, moving between her favourite bar and walking her dog. One can imagine that The Idler Wheel is Apple’s slow movement towards total cerebral overdrive.

“Left Alone” seems a summation of this isolation, asking “how can I ask anyone to love me when all I do is beg to be loved?” Fiona Apple once seemed to struggle against this characterization: “Extraordinary Machine,” Apple’s last album, used fuller instrumentals to illustrate lovelorn revenge and a push against reclusiveness. With The Idler Wheel, Apple has removed the frills, the roundedness of her earlier work, and what is left is jagged enough to cut deep.