words by Eric Engelbart
Fiona Apple’s life is a movie waiting to be written. She’s endured the public spotlight since the age of nineteen when her first album Tidal became a critical and commercial success, and somehow managed to channel the stress and turmoil of a life in the spotlight into some of the most memorable music being produced today, rather than crack under the pressure.
Earlier in her career, Apple used her sex appeal to gain a larger audience while she explained that she would rather exploit herself than let someone else do it. Nowadays, she has become calculatedly peculiar to maintain an aura of mystery, as you can gather from seeing her with an octopus on her head in the video for “Every Single Night.” She definitely marches to the beat of a different drum, in a way that lends her music a refreshing sense of authenticity.
With the release of her latest album, The Idler Wheel… Apple continues to evolve in a way that is rare in a culture where female artists tend to try and stay young as long as possible rather than embrace life’s passages. While the album is not as commercially viable as her past efforts due to the intentional lack of hooks and singable choruses, it explores emotional depths and sentimentality with such wisdom that it resembles the work of Emily Dickinson more than the work of Regina Spektor. The absence of longtime producer Jon Brion in favor of Apple’s longtime drummer, Charley Drayton, gives the album a stripped down feel, with percussion taking center stage. All in all, the album has a tremendous wisdom to it, and doesn’t miss a note.
The subject matter on almost all of Apple’s albums is almost exclusively in the realm of failed relationships, and this doesn’t change on The Idler Wheel. Fortunately for the listener, Apple’s relationships with interesting and peculiar men like filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson, magician David Blaine, and writer Jonathan Ames keep her subject matter from ever becoming tedious. On “Daredevil,” Apple eloquently explains how frequent heartbreak enhances her ability as an artist. She explains: “Say I’m an airplane/ and the gashes I get from my heartbreak/ Make the slots and the flaps upon my wings/ and I use them to give me lift.” She is an adventurous and easily bored artist, and would rather jump off a cliff into the water than scale her way down the side of the mountain.
Apple’s ability to transform a phrase that could feel awkward and forced into a thing of beauty is one of her most notable strengths, as it provides her music with a sense of wonder and uniquely relentless resonance. There are many examples of this concept throughout the album, such as on standout track “Werewolf,” when she professes: “I could liken you to a werewolf the way you left me for dead/ but I’ll admit that I provided a full moon.”
On “Left Alone,” a track that opens with a 30 second drum solo before Apple’s trademark piano takes precedence, her opening lines showcase a sense of nostalgia and growth through gradual erosion of romanticism: “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.” She is quite frequently critical of her younger self, which may be a clue as to why she has continued to follow a road untraveled.
The album’s high watermark (and possibly the high point of Apple’s entire career to this point) is the last track, “Hot Knife,” an intricate arrangement that features’ her sister providing accompanying vocals. The song evolves as it moves along, with an eventual finale showcasing a six part harmony accompanied by a simple rhythm on a steel drum. It’s one of those musical moments that could go wrong very easily, and requires an outstanding talent to pull off. That’s how the whole album feels, but luckily Apple is up to the task and then some.