“These ideas of mine/percolate the mind/trickle down my spine/swarm the belly/swelling to a blaze.” So sings Fiona Apple on “Every Single Night,” the opening track and first official single from her first album in seven years, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do. It’s a typical bit of Apple poetry, evocative yet blunt, and inherently wrapped up in the singer’s own unwaveringly awkward state of being. It also serves as a nice distillation of her modus operandi: Apple’s records are products of necessity, both creative and physical. The long stretches between her albums are not due to creative drought—she performed semi-regularly at L.A.’s Largo during her hibernation—so much as her letting her thoughts simmer until they have to boil over into songs and spill out onto an album. Consequently, The Idler Wheel…, which brings to a close Apple’s longest period of silence following her mega-hit 1996 debut Tidal, has a sense of uncomfortable urgency buoying its copious minor chords. Apple growls, howls, and occasionally grunts out her lyrics, with little apparent regard for whether it sounds pretty or is even particularly appealing.
It is appealing though; in fact, it’s downright gorgeous in its own creepy way, a musical vivisection in which Apple turns herself inside out—sometimes literally, at least in her lyrics—to examine wounds both gaping and calcified. The Idler Wheel… is an innately private record, as Apple’s tend to be, but she has a way of drawing listeners in as she pushes them away, luring them, siren-like, into the maelstrom of her own reflection. “Oh, the periphery/They throw good parties there/Those peripheral idiots,” she sneers on “Periphery,” later shrugging “’Cause I don’t appreciate people who don’t appreciate/All that loving must’ve been lackin’ something/if I got bored trying to figure you out.” The message is clear: Apple doesn’t have the time or regard for superfluous people or concerns—often to her own detriment. “How can I ask anyone to love me when all I do is beg to be left alone?” she moans on the clenched-fist squirmer “Left Alone.” And yet as she roils in the center of her own insecurity, the tendrils of melody and Apple’s bare-it-all vocals create a sort of whirlpool effect, pulling listeners in, almost inadvertently, despite her best efforts to be alone with her thoughts.
Of course, Apple probably doesn’t really want to be alone with her thoughts, musical or otherwise; such ambitions are contrary to the artistic disposition. But she does seem intent on experiencing them in her own way, and letting others figure out how to calibrate themselves to her mode of expression. “It pisses me off to think that we’re conditioned to push away bad feelings and to think that anything that’s uncomfortable is something to be avoided,” she told Pitchfork in a recent interview. “The worst pain in the world is shame. I spend a lot of time trying to not do anything bad to anyone, but you can’t live your life and not hurt people.” Apple seems to find comfort in expressing her discomfort—with other people, with herself, with former and future lovers—and her ability to do so with sincerity and an odd sort of grace is both captivating and strangely welcoming. Apple isn’t going to greet listeners with a smile and an offer of tea, but her world is nonetheless open to all comers who are willing to burrow in with her. She’s secluded, but she’s not hiding.
The clandestine nature of The Idler Wheel… makes it ideally suited to headphones. The warm, loose production creates a jazzy, session-like feel, as if Apple is locked away inside some tapestry-draped cocoon only accessible to outsiders through direct auditory input. There’s a scrappy, homespun quality to most of the songs, particularly those that incorporate unusual percussion tones: The muffled sound of a door opening and closing underneath the piano line of the paranoid “Werewolf”; the lo-fi recording of the clack and clatter of a bottling plant on the breakup reflection “Jonathan”; or Apple banging on a tin can and plastic cup on the uneasily flirtatious “Anything We Want” (which, paired with the building vocal rounds and bouncy hollow-drum pulse of the album-closing “Hot Knife,” ends the album on an unexpectedly upbeat note).
Though the outside nature of these sounds is initially somewhat jarring in the more expected context of Apple’s piano and voice, they quickly insinuate themselves into the melody, becoming the skeletal framework upon which Apple and co-producer/percussionist Charley Drayton build spare, occasionally catchy, usually melancholy melodies. (After all, as Apple sings, somewhat cheekily, on the outro of “Werewolf,” “Nothin’ wrong when a song ends in a minor key.”) Even pre-recorded and looped, these sampled elements feel organic and spontaneous, the result of human experience rather than knob-twiddling. Like everything Apple does, the album’s production feels compulsive, not calculated.
Compulsion is a fitting lens through which to view both Apple and The Idler Wheel…. Like the intermediary gear for which the record is named, Apple seems to spin in her own fixed state, doing the only thing she knows how to do without regard for whatever outcome it may produce. Yet in doing so, she creates an immense amount of energy. She reflects action rather than directing it; as she repeats over and over on “Every Single Night,” she just wants to feel everything. The beauty of The Idler Wheel… is how it transmits each of those feelings in excruciating, frank, and lovely detail.