Fiona Apple returns after half a decade with something strange and beautiful.
The most successful women in popular music (though not necessarily pop artist) all share something in common – consistency. Norah Jones, though she has evolved her sound, will always write the perfect Starbucks soundtrack. Regina Spektor will always be that indie girl you secretly have a crush on. Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Katy Perry, and every other pop princess will always churn out great radio hits when they need to. And Fiona Apple will always….well she’ll always be Fiona Apple.
Even since she was eighteen Apple has stunned, shocked, and even frightened the world with a voice as frail as she looks, but with jazzy pop-smarts and an emotional power that comes out of nowhere and puts a hold on you. Not to mention she had badmouthed the music industry on live TV and has had a fair share of public meltdowns and blunt interviews. She ain’t a sweet indie princess, but she’s every bit as talented, if not more talented, than her female peers.
Her career has spanned over 16 years and yet she has only released three albums till this week. Fiona Apple’s new album is fully titled The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (this will be shorten to The Idler Wheel for the sake of this review). This would be a bold album title for anyone else, but this is only Apple’s second longest title (check out her second album – 90 words long). Though it’s been a while, Apple is still consistent with her strengths as a performer and lyricist, which makes The Idler Wheel a welcome return for Apple.
Much like the album cover, the songs off The Idler Wheel sound more like sketches than fully realized songs. And like the album cover, these “sketches” are both striking and beautiful. Apple is a master at grabbing your attention with the smallest things, whether it’s her cryptic piano playing (which dominates the album) or an interesting beat of percussions. The best way to describe Apple’s sound is “raw”. There are few instruments, and it seems like these are all first takes, making the listening experience more stripped down. The mood is sad but with a little sweetness (“Nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key” she claims on “Werewolf”). Unfortunately, Apple sometimes confuses “raw” with “unpolished”. There are one too many times while listening to the album that I’m expecting (more hoping) that the song will build and lead somewhere. However, usually the pace is kept the same.
However, because you don’t have any kind of musical climax to look forward to, you’re forced to pay attention to the lyrics, and that’s where Apple really shines. Throughout The Idler Wheel it is clear that Apple wants you to know that she is still dealing with some intense stuff. “Every single night’s a fight with my brain” she sings on album opener “Every Single Night”, and her brain is full of bad love, scary thoughts, worries of being left alone, and other typical Fiona Apple topics. It seems that the theme of The Idler Wheel is that she has love to give, but she’s paranoid of how quickly it could disappear (“While you were watching someone else / I stared at you and cut myself” from “Valentine”) and that all she wants is, “to feel everything”. It seems that after all this time away from the spotlight she’s still struggling with being Fiona Apple. But damn it she sings so pretty you want to hear her be sad just for the sake of hearing her.
I’m not exactly the most qualified person to talk about Fiona Apple considering this is the first album of hers that I own. However, The Idler Wheel is strong enough to convince me, but not convert me, into a fan. I’m not sure how The Idler Wheel stacks up to her other albums, but now I want to go and check them out.
Overall First Impression: The album is striking, both lyrically and sonically, but I hope it didn’t take eight years to make.
Buy This Album If: You are already, or think you may be, a Fiona Apple fan.
Don’t Buy This Album If: You know for sure you don’t like Fiona Apple.
Highlights: “Every Single Night”, “Valentine”, “Anything We Want”
Brady is the founder of Headphone Nation. He’s responsible for all this mess. Sorry about that. He’s also on Twitter @BradyWGerber