The Idler Wheel..., her mesmerizing fourth album, offers the most vivid glimpse yet inside the songwriter's head.
Fiona Apple's new album is the kind of record you rave about to everybody and end up sounding kind of out of your mind for doing so. Her first release in seven years, a collection of weird, stripped-down anthems produced by her drummer, has been rattling around in my head for a week now, and every time I've talked with someone about it, the conversation has revolved around the word "crazy." After telling a longtime fan how great the album sounded: "Oh, that's good. When I saw her earlier this year she seemed crazy." Telling a skeptic: "Oh. I always thought she was crazy." Telling someone who lost track of her a decade ago: "Oh. She's still alive?"
Apple has endured this kind of talk for her whole career. FionaAppleActingCrazy.tumblr.com is as good a place as any to start looking for examples; same goes for her Wikipedia entry, which details the not-at-all-crazy-but-treated-like-it-was-crazy "this world is bullshit" speech she gave at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards. And Apple herself has occasionally played coy about her sanity on her records over the years. "I went crazy again today" goes a key line from 1999's "Paper Bag," and 2005's "Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song)" encapsulated one of the key questions of her art: "I'm either so sick in the head, I need to be bled dry to quit / Or... I just really used to love him."
Apple makes an eloquent case for the logic of her emotions, and 'The Idler Wheel...' works so well because it puts her words first.
But terms like "crazy," "sick in the head," and "insane" don't show up on her latest, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do, though, of course, its very title invites such words. As a recent New York Times profile put it, as soon as Apple announced the The Idler Wheel..., "she was reading online about 'Fiona Apple's ridiculous new album title.'"
"Of course you're going to say ridiculous," Apple told writer Jon Pareles. "Because that's what you do with me, right?'"
That's what you do with me—it's a statement that debunks the notion that Apple's crazy, at least going by the adage that crazy people don't know what they are. Apple's power as a songwriter actually comes from self-awareness: her aliveness to the way people perceive her, her ability to analyze what's actually going on inside her, and her talent for communicating both of those realities. It's fitting that the 23-word album title refers to the parts that make up an engine and the fibers that make up a rope. Both are sturdy, mechanical, complex but knowable objects—pieces of systems in which actions have reactions, wear and tear take their toll, and what's broken can be patched up but never made new. Her previous albums (see the title of Extraordinary Machine), were also built around this metaphor for the mind, but The Idler Wheel... renders it more fully, making a mesmerizing argument for the dignity of anyone who's been brushed off as ridiculous or crazy or overly emotional.
It opens with a music-box chime and the sound of Apple turning her head inside out, diagramming the way ideas and feelings flow through her: as "white-flamed butterflies," percolating in the brain, swarming down the spine, flaring up in the belly. The song, "Every Single Night" (below) is a part-whispered, part-Tarzan-yodeled blend of doctor's-office symptom reading and more impressionistic material: "That's when the pain kicks in / Like a second skeleton underneath the skin / I can't fit the feelings in." The words are fanciful and specific, but the overriding image is universal: lying in bed, tossing and turning with thoughts of the day ("What'd I say to her? Why'd I say it to her? What does she think of me?"). "Every single night's a fight," she quavers, and then, crucially, "Every single fight's all right." Battling with your mind is painful, but it's OK. It's regular. It's human.
If I'm quoting her lyrics a lot, it's because Apple makes a more eloquent case for the logic of her emotions and actions than anyone else. She's a better writer than pretty much anyone in pop, and The Idler Wheel... works so well because it puts her words first. The sometimes dated-as-soon-as-they-were-recorded full-band arrangements of her previous albums are gone. Now, the music is all acoustic but somehow more ornate than ever, composed of drums, piano, and stranger instruments ("thighs" reportedly appear in the liner notes) that clamor or creep along depending on Apple's mood. It's stark and vivid, like a charcoal painting or one-woman play.
Much of the album is spent documenting what she sees as her own, incurable romantic hang up: an inability to truly open up to another person. "I'm a tulip in a cup," she sings on the devastating part-time-tango of "Valentine," "I stand no chance of growing up." But this is no inexplicable, in-born state. Rather, it's a condition with traceable causes. Over clattering toms and whirlwind piano mashing on "Left Alone," she thinks back to a romance in her youth ("I was still a dewey petal / rather than a moribund slut") and of how she scared the guy away: "It hurt more than it ought to hurt / I went to work to cultivate a callus / And now I'm hard / Too hard to know." Similar imagery about growing pricklier and colder with age recurs over the album. On the best and plainest song, "Werewolf," she tries to summon angst for an ex but recognizes her own culpability in their breakup—and how he changed her forever. "The lava of a volcano / shot up hot from under the sea," she wails in an appropriately scalding tone. Her voice mellows: "One thing leads to another / and you made an island of me."
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She's equally as sharp when sketching out happier times, times during which she felt the kind of love that comes from two people letting each other be themselves. "Jonathan" describes her relationship with writer Jonathan Ames, with her asking him to take her to Coney Island and not make her "talk about anything." The astonishing album closer, "Hot Knives," unfolds as a portentous hymn, with Apple and her sister Maude Maggart singing in infectious rounds and Apple supplementing with near-muttered asides: "You can relax around me." And "Anything We Want" buzzes with kitchen-sink clatter, warm piano chords, and an account of gleeful intimacy: "Let's pretend like we're eight years old playing hooky / I'll draw on the wall and you can play UFC rookie."
Over the course of the career, Apple's insistence on explaining herself has often felt almost political. After all, "crazy," according to a lot of people, is the worst thing you can call a woman, dating back to medieval diagnoses of female "hysteria" labeling normal emotions as sickness. "I have too been playing with 52 cards," Apple said on 2005's "Oh, Sailor," seemingly responding to a lifetime of dismissals. But on The Idler Wheel..., Apple's stopped responding to any critics but herself, and the self-doubt and reactionary hurt of her earlier work has been replaced by clarity about her own personality. An uncharitable listener could still pick and choose lines to make her sound unstable: "Don't let me ruin me / I may just need a chaperone," she growls, for example, on "Daredevil." But sit with it for a while, and her pleas reveal themselves to be intensely humane. What she wants is companionship and understanding. What's saner than that?
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