Fiona Apple's new album, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do, is her most adventurous album yet. And it'll probably be her least profitable album too.
The inaccessibility of her album (to a larger, mainstream audience) is exactly what marks her phenomenal evolution as a musician. Fiona Apple always challenged her listeners with her whimsical yet deep, angry yet tender, and full of archaic diction lyrics. This time, even more so than her last effort, Extraordinary Machine, she confronts listeners with the beautifully subtle yet jarring pace and tone of her music. It is the type of album that invites multiple listens; an album that one sinks into rather than merely floats on top of. Between recordings of screaming schoolyard children ("Werewolf") and decrescendos that sound like complete pauses ("Valentine"), Apple continues to prove that she's still eager to experiment musically rather than rely on her sweeping piano sounds that made her a success at 19 with the release of Tidal. With each album she's experimented with different music, while always finding a fit with her poignant lyrics. On this new album, the music punctuates the themes and mood of her lyrics, rather than harmonize with them. There are no potential single hits on The Idler Wheel..., no catchy melodies (although maybe one could argue that "Hot Knife" has potential to be a Summer jam but I won't make that digression). She sings--with the most unabashed rough and vulnerable vocals I've ever heard from her--about the push and pull of emotions and the need to be loved but also be free in solitude; she wants to feel everything ("Every Single Night") but she doesn't want to talk about anything ("Jonathan"). The album plays like an improvised, deconstructed jazz session where words and music don't always seem to piece together, phrase by phrase, but somehow swirl together cohesively by the end of each song. Even the songs with familiar vocal harmonies and conventional tempos still have a refreshingly offbeat quality. Equally blissful and brooding moments punch out but then fall back again into the strangely subdued intricate flow of the entire album. Her lyrics convey that she's still prone to bouts of anger and sullenness but her music shows signs of growth and maturity because she's not relying on melodic tunes or her long-time collaborator/producer Jon Brion to communicate with her audience.
The Idler Wheel... is whole but fragmented; a beautiful contradiction that sounds raggedly bare and minimalistic at first but peels back to show its smooth complexion beneath its layers. It has what I deem to be imperfections but it feels so authentic to me that I love it despite its flaws (which are just few songs I prefer to skip). It's not an easy listen because Apple is not making perfectly popular, packaged music. But it's a rewarding listen because she's conveying her contradictory nature through her work, while continuing to refuse to conform to anyone's standards or expectations. Although it is a delicate album, it's also her most bold statement since When the Pawn... and it deserves your full attention.
Recently, the debate over illegally downloading music has been re-sparked on the internet. So with that discussion refueled, I urge you to please legally buy Fiona Apple's album! She is an artist that so needs the financial support of her audience, in order to prove to her record company that she's still worth investing in and that her music should never be shelved mid-production or delayed in its release (like it has been on her last two albums). I'd like my prediction that this will be her least profitable album to be proven wrong! I highly recommend buying the deluxe edition of The Idler Wheel... on iTunes because it comes with an awesome digital journal/flipbook with Apple's handwritten lyrics and sketches: