When I heard Fiona Apple was releasing a new album in 2012, my first thoughts were, “I’m not going through a breakup! How will I relate to her new music?!”
Maybe that was a tad melodramatic, but it’s easy to say that Apple isn’t known for writing cheery, happy music. I’ve always enjoyed her, but the majority of her albums have come to me during times when I could empathize with her slightly depressing, love-gone-wrong, lyrics.
Still, despite being in a happy place in my life, I bought The Idler Wheel…(which is shortened from, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do… oh, Fiona- you and your wacky album titles!). Though the majority of the album does fall into “scorned woman” territory, the rest of it is more than enjoyable.
“I just want to feel everything,” sings Apple during the refrain of the first song on the album, and lead single, Every Single Night. Musically, the song is surprisingly upbeat and joyful- there’s even the sounds of a xylophone being played throughout- but the lyrics detail an inner struggle with one’s own brain (“Every single night I endure the flight/Of little wings of white flame/Butterflies in my brain/These ideas of mine percolate the mind/Trickle down the spine/Swarm the belly, swelling to a blaze”). I was instantly hooked on this song; as someone who often feels as though I’m my own worst enemy, the lyrics struck a very personal chord, and the song is just genuinely fun- how can you resist that tribal chant of a chorus?
One of the album’s real stand-outs is Valentine. At first look, I thought maybe Apple had written a genuine love song, but of course she hasn’t. The sparse melody plays along with a ballad about unrequited love, and though Apple’s tackled this topic before, the lyrics are still sharp and smart (“You didn’t see my valentine/I sent it via pantomime/While you were watching someone else/I stared at you and cut myself/That’s all I’ll do cause I’m not free/A fugitive too dull to flee”), and her voice sounds warm and inviting throughout.
Meanwhile, Daredevil sounds completely like one of Apple’s older songs, though I can’t pinpoint which exact one. The familiarity is pretty harmless- the screaming in the chorus and jaunty syncopation work well together. Actually, the same could be said of the about half the tracks on the album, including Jonathan, Left Alone, Periphery and Anything We Want– all of which just sound like reprises of any number of Apple’s previous works. I’m not sure why that is- perhaps it’s just that I’ve heard this same dissonant piano playing before, and the melancholy melody and desolate vocal delivery aren’t anything new either. It’s not as though I have a problem with Apple’s style- I don’t- but I suppose I was hoping that by her fourth album, she’d have a few new tricks up her sleeve. At the very least, it would’ve been nice if she collaborated with a new producer (Australian musician, Charley Drayton, is credited as co-producer on some tracks, but I can’t see his influence anywhere) who could help her unearth some fresh sounds and ideas.
Thankfully, Werewolf is a bit more interesting both musically and lyrically. Perhaps the simplistic piano chords aren’t anything legendary, but the understated melody is nice and sounds a bit different than some of the other ballads on the album. Apple’s lyrical game is at its best here, particularly during some of the verses (“I could liken you to a werewolf the way you left me for dead/But I admit that I provided a full moon/And 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”). Apple is at her best when she’s biting and sarcastic, and even though I’m not able to compare this song to someone I’ve just broken up with, I can still appreciate and relate to the honesty in the lyrics.
Regret continues with the same acerbic tone, as another heartsick song. The percussion seems to be made up mainly of castanets, which gives off a unique tone. Apple’s delivery is accurately angry, particularly as she cries out during the hook (“I ran out of white dove feathers/To soak up the hot p–s that comes through your mouth/Every time you address me/…leave me alone!”). This song is one of the few cases on the album where I know I actually cannot relate; the music and lyrics are just too depressing and I feel as though I could only enjoy this song if I was going through the same sort of heartbreak. Fingers crossed that I never end up in this emotional state again.
The best song on the album is saved for the very last with Hot Knife. The tribal sound is back with galloping drums that play throughout the track. However, most of the melody is composed of Apple’s vocals, as she sings the song in several rounds with layers of her own vocals fading in and out of the background. Her vocals sound different than I’ve ever heard from her before- there’s an almost 50’s, cabaret style to her delivery- but it all sounds tremendously good together. The repetition of the chorus (“If I’m butter then/He’s a hot knife/He makes my heart a cinemascope screen/Showing a dancing bird of paradise”) is extremely catchy and the song is definitely one of the best in Apple’s repertoire.
The Idler Wheel… is a good album, mostly highlighted by the handful of vibrant, unique tracks. Where Fiona Apple fails, however, is on the majority of the album, where she rests on her previous works for inspiration. True, if it’s not broken, there’s no point in fixing it- but it’s still nice to see an artist evolve and grow after so many years in the music business.
1. Every Single Night
5. Left Alone
9. Anything We Want
10. Hot Knife