Fiona Apple has been around for so long that it’s easy to forget just how young she was when she hit mainstream success. Apple was only 17-years-old when her debut album Tidal spawned the mega-hit singles “Shadowboxer” and “Criminal”, and not very far removed from the harrowing attacks of her childhood. On her latest album, the first in seven years (titled with a full-length poem, as is her fashion), Apple looks back on the headrush of early fame and concludes she stood “no chance of growing up”.
People love to prattle on about the myth of the wounded artist, but here Apple puts the lie to that archetype. The traumas that we carry don’t send us soaring, they keep us on the floor – and it fucking hurts like hell the whole time. As with her past work, The Idler Wheel portrays Apple as an engaging mix of brilliant and crazy (in some ways she’s the original Manic Pixie Dream Girl), but there are fewer smooth edges in the music for the listener to land. This is the first vision we have on record of the fully-grown Fiona Apple, and she is not okay. The album is her Plastic Ono Band, with vocals that veer from the unhinged mumble of a mental patient roaming the day room to throaty, yelping growls that bear the weight of her frustration.
The production mirrors that mood, consisting chiefly of spare drum loops and understated piano lines – alternately gentle and ferocious. The production was handled this time by Apple herself, along with her tour drummer Charley Drayton, and it’s by far the best sounding album of her career. Apple’s complete artistic control allows her to create soundscapes so vivid that they suggest a perfectly concrete image minutes before the lyric comes. “Jonathan” conjures the creaking chaos of a shipwreck long before the words confirm the analogy (take note, Adele, this is what it’s like to really be “rolling in the deep”). The album is a fun house filled with distorted lines and visions, with mocking background vocals and surprise hooks around every corner.
Lyrically, Apple paints herself as consistently dissatisfied with herself and partners who don’t “know how to react and be in scene”. We get a sense of Apple as feisty and untamed (still a shadowboxer, after all these years), but maybe just a little tired of being that way. “How can I ask anyone to love me,” she asks, “when all I do beg to be left alone?”
That battle makes the final tracks of the album all the more surprising, as Apple owns the sensuality of her music and of herself with a confidence she’s never put on record before. On the two closing tracks, including the very best song on the album “Anything We Want”, she is playful and coy (“I’ll draw on the walls, you can play UFC rookie”). For the first time in her career we see her in the flush of romantic possibility rather than detailing its lingering death. The music matches that flush, with infectious percussion and sparkling harmonies.
The Idler Wheel builds upon the jumpy style of When the Pawn, learns from the mistakes of the overly dense Extraordinary Machine, and feels centuries removed from the glossy Tidal, while at the same time making each album look all the better in its reflection. Apple continues to build the most impressive catalog in the past twenty years, and maybe come to a kind of peace, one broken heart at a time.
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: