Fiona Apple is 34 years old now. For 17 of those years, almost exactly half of her time on this planet, she’s been a public figure, one with the sort of devoted mass-cult following whose devotions can just cripple a creative brain. And she’s lived that entire spotlight time — or, at least, the parts of that time when she’s been regularly leaving the house — with a sort of raw-nerve candor that we don’t often see from celebrities. In the recent interviews she’s been doing, she’s been laughing off the idea that she shouldn’t be talking about even the most jarringly intimate aspects of her life. And her music follows from that same viewpoint. It’s eloquent, artful stuff, but it’s still about revealing the ravenous need at the heart of our collective being, drowning in the sort of feeling that the artifice of art so often obscures. And I’m happy to report that, of the four albums she’s made, her brand-new The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw, And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do could well be the most quintessentially her one yet, the one that’s most dedicated to making public the workings of that brain.
The Idler Wheel… is the sort of album where you read the lyric sheet with a Hi-Liter. Apple has a way with extended metaphors that might come across tortured if any other writer came up with them: “I could liken you to a shark the way you bit off my head / But then again, I was waving around a bleeding open wound.” And then, a few lines later, she’ll come up with a piece of interpersonal insight so stark and cutting that it can raise goosebumps: “We can still support each other. All we gotta do is avoid each other.”
The opening track and first single “Every Single Night” is about the interior battle that comes with thoughts like those, about the pain of figuring out what to do with the ideas fizzing around in your brain. More of it is relationship-talk, which isn’t exactly fallow ground in pop music. But Apple doesn’t write about this stuff the way anyone else does. Some of the time, she’s just painfully stark: “Oh, the periphery / I lost another one there / He found a prettier girl than me / With a more even-tempered air.” And sometimes it’s just terribly romantic: “I kept touching my neck to guide your eye to where I wanted you to kiss me when we find some time alone.” The big image in the closing track “Hot Knife” is “I’m a hot knife, he’s a pat of butter,” and it shares just about nothing in common with the millions of songs that have been written about this kind of thing. It feels true in a way that all the hackneyed love songs in music history don’t especially feel true, and it feels new and exciting for it.
If Apple doesn’t write her relationship stuff the way other pop-song writers do, she also doesn’t sing it the way other singers sing it. There’s a touch of musical theater in her diction: Every word is given crystalline enunciation, when it’s not drawn out into a bark or groan or sigh. And she’s not afraid to let her song-structures roam all over the place or her voice toy around with the song’s rhythm, treating it as a mere suggestion. It’s a small miracle that her songs so often register as catchy when they’re just so goddam weird. Even though it’s been seven years since her last album, it’s still possible to get the idea that she’s just freestyling this whole thing, catching stray thoughts and just spitting them out there for us.
Musically, this is probably her busiest album yet, which is pretty stunning when you consider how often she’s worked with Jon Brion in the past. She produced this one herself alongside drummer Charley Drayton, and it definitely sounds like an album that a drummer had a big hand in putting together. There are lots of moments where the thing seems ready to fall off the rhythmic deep end, little bursts of jazz flash that end just as suddenly as they arrive. It also makes perfect sense that Sebastian Steinberg, the jazzbo bassist who used to be in Soul Coughing, is now in Apple’s band. There’s that same sense that the pulse here is a fleeting quicksilver jazz thing, not a four-on-the-floor pop-music one. But the album’s bits of showy virtuosity and quirky orchestration never overwhelm Apple’s voice or words. If anything, they just sharpen Apple’s presence. The music tends to skitter around like a spider looking for a hiding place, and that mirrors the sort of jumped-up, irregular things your heartbeat might do when you finally get up the nerve to say some of the stuff she says here. Just like the lyrics, the music works as a highwire act — always spinning so fast that it could fall apart, as if to remind you that there’s always something at stake here.
In this Pitchfork interview, Apple finds an interesting way to describe the album: “This is the stuff that I really needed to get out, this is the excrement of my life, the excrement I was trying to exorcise out of me.” And maybe that’s why we’ve only gotten four albums out of Apple to date: She waits until the jumbled ideas build up, until she absolutely needs to get them out. It’s a strange way of working, but it’s given us four absolutely incredible pieces of art. I’m still working out where The Idler Wheel… sits in relation to Apple’s other albums. But after a couple of days of nonstop listening, I can tell you with full confidence that it’s an Album Of The Year contender, a thing worth getting lost in.