The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do by Fiona Apple (Clean Slate, Epic, 2012. 43 minutes)
Born in New York City, Fiona Apple is a singer-songwriter and pianist. Apple first gained notoriety for her debut album, Tidal, winning a Grammy Award for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance. The Idler Wheel… is Apple’s fourth studio album.
I can’t say I’ve known a truly unstable person and I want to be careful about labeling Fiona Apple as such—I don’t know her and it would be rude to assume. But, I imagine friendship with such a person would be a roller coaster. Words might be volatile; you’d walk on pins and needles. If this person told you they were trustworthy, would you trust them?
Again with the reminder that I don’t know Fiona Apple, I’ve found her lyrics to signify someone with a screw loose. I love her honesty but she seems like an erratic person.
In her latest release, The Idler Wheel…, Apple continues to write with a bare honesty unmatched in the world of pop music. Melding jazz, alternative rock, and some new electronic flourishes, The Idler Wheel… might be Apple’s best.
A Fight with Her Brain
The album opens with “Every Single Night”, a jazzy single with Apple’s neuroses in full effect. She sings,
“Every single night / I endure the flight / Of little wings of white-flamed / butterflies in my brain / These ideas of mine / Percolate the mind / Trickle down the spine / Swarm the belly, swelling to a blaze / That’s where the pain comes in / Like a second skeleton / Trying to fit beneath the skin / I can’t fit the feelings in”
Through all of this tension both musically and lyrically, Apple sets up an aggressive chorus where she croons,
“Every single night’s a fight with my brain”
Everything about The Idler Wheel… unsettles. In particular, “Jonathan” stands out with its tense piano chords and boxy counter melody. Nothing about the song adds comfort to the listener.
Similarly, “Left Alone” waddles along with an unsteady chord progression. The song has energy but it feels like a tipsy sort of energy—the kind right before a blackout after a heavy night’s drinking.
The Outside Looking In
In “Periphery”, Apple continues expressing her doubts about life and promotes herself as an outsider. She sings,
“Oh, the periphery / I lost another one there / He found a prettier girl than me / With a more even-tempered air / And if he wants her, he should get her / Cause I think he thinks she’s worth it / And maybe they’ll move from the periphery / Buy themselves their own plot of land / And I’ll care in a different capacity / I’ll just be hoping he makes a good family man”
Acting the jilted lover, Apple sings with her heart on the page and the music funnels her feelings into an agitated state.
With Music to Match
The end of the record, however, shines the brightest. With odd percussion and even stranger chord progressions, “Anything We Want” continues the theme of unsettledness.
Over a discordant-then-resolved progression, Apple ponders,
“My scars were / Reflecting the mist in your headlights / I looked like a neon zebra / Shaking rain off her stripes / And the rivulets / Had you riveted / To the places that I wanted you to kiss me / When we find some time alone / And then we can do anything we want”
Perhaps most impressively, Apple composes a catchy chorus over the strangest chord progression. While the first two chords represent standard pop, Apple runs off the charts using augmented chords and strangely placed sevenths.
In sum, the song feels catchy-yet-off.
Is Everything Alright?
Finally, Apple concludes The Idler Wheel… with “Hot Knife”. With syncopated a capella lines, she sings about a volatile relationship between male and female where each person is butter to the other’s hot knife. Lyrically, the most interesting part of the song occurs toward the end of the tune. Built over a cinemascope of lyrics, Apple suggests,
“You can relax around me”
Perhaps she means it in an ironic way but I find it fascinating how Apple spends the entire span of The Idler Wheel… introducing the listener to the wide scope of her neuroses and yet the last thing she tells us is that we can relax around her.
In her liner notes, on stage, and in interviews, Fiona Apple has presented herself as quite the iconoclast. In The Idler Wheel… she continues to promote this notion, yet she asks us to relax around her? Such a turn in lyrical narrative interests me. I continue to enjoy Apple’s art and if I must relax to hear more, relax I shall.
The Idler Wheel… is an excellent contribution to Apple’s discography—perhaps even her best. If you like singer-songwriters, difficult music and lyrics, or interesting characters, check out Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel…
Verdict:4.5 out of 5