Album Review: Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel…

I heard Fiona Apple speak for the first time earlier this week during her interview on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. It was both fascinating and startling for me to hear her voice in a non-musical environment. Despite maintaining the same Fiona persona full of curiosity and introspection that I’ve read in her interviews, I was somehow surprised that the same voice that can belt the fury of “Fast As You Can” or “Criminal” was as excitable and wondrous as she was on Jimmy Fallon. I was taken aback because although I’ve enjoyed Fiona’s music for many years now, I’d never seen her in a setting so casual, innocent, or even fun. The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do, Fiona’s fourth album across her 16 year-long career, is just that – a stunning new view into the never-ending saga of Fiona Apple’s inner journey that reveals more about her than ever before.

The first thing that stands out about The Idler Wheel… is that it’s sonically lean. The lush arrangements of Jon Brion are nowhere to be found here. Instead, Fiona’s touring drummer Charley Drayton takes the co-pilot’s seat, resulting in a percussion-centered backdrop on most of the songs. It turns out that’s exactly what Fiona needs, but to say that these songs are stripped down is wrong. Drayton’s sparse arrangements work perfectly for Fiona’s new approach. Arguably her least accessible album, The Idler Wheel… probably isn’t going to have a crossover hit, but that’s a relief because it’s more exhilarating to hear Fiona explore herself without any boundaries. Drayton’s percussion keeps her just enclosed enough so that the songs don’t sprawl out, which leaves Fiona exactly where she should be – alone under the spotlight. As for Fiona herself, she’s as technically sharp as ever. There isn’t a moment on the record where Fiona isn’t in full control of her full range of whispers, sighs, moans, and shouts, and often, all of these are used within the same track. Opener “Every Single Night” begins with Fiona whispering across her piano, but by the time she reaches the chorus, her voice erupts in a multi-tracked shout. On the frantic “Left Alone” she switches effortlessly between spitfire narration and an impressive display of vocal gymnastics in the chorus. Lyrically, each of the songs is an inquisitive trek. Despite appearing like send-offs to ex-boyfriends on the surface, “Jonathan” (named for her former boyfriend of three years) and “Werewolf” express more of Fiona’s self-awareness rather than her fury. Combined with the spartan musical arrangements, Fiona’s new exploratory approach is unlike anything in her catalog. It’s stunning that even after three painfully honest LPs, Fiona’s still curious about how she relates (or doesn’t) with others. Although it would be interesting to see Fiona tackle a subject other than herself, The Idler Wheel… shows that there’s still plenty of aspects of Fiona Apple (the musician) that Fiona Apple (the person) has yet to explore.

In Fiona’s recent press photos, she looks completely different than she did in the press junket for Extraordinary Machine. In 2005, she was dressed in elegant gowns, wearing a sultry appealing half-scowl/half-smile as she stood in a park holding an apple. (I bet the photographer who thought of that thinks he/she’s so clever.) In 2012, she’s simply staring bewildered at the camera with undone hair, no makeup, and her mouth open. As much as I love the picture of Fiona holding the apple (it was once my desktop background for several months), the new one seems so much more like a portrait Fiona would take of herself. Honest, thrilling, and refreshing, The Idler Wheel… makes Fiona’s past work seem like dishonest, even if those records were just paintings of Fiona at the time. I like this new Fiona. The Fiona who pulls out pool balls on national television to make a statement, the Fiona who challenges herself by letting squids reside on her head, the Fiona who reveals that she uses the Internet primarily to look at slideshows. She’s fascinating yet familiar. Completely reinvented without alienating anyone who’s even vaguely familiar with her work. The Idler Wheel… is new Fiona’s coming out party, and it’s one that no one should miss.

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