Fiona Apple's Deep, Dark Woods

July 23, 2012 12:36 PM

Fiona Apple has been known as many things during her decade-spanning career: Jazzy. Sensual. Sociopathic. She’s spun her rhymes out of lyrical silk, and made warm, theatrical tunes over which she effortlessly lays that voice. The Idler Wheel is a different Fiona. Instead, she chooses low, impressionistic piano, free jazz percussion, and limping homemade beats. She takes disjunction and dissonance over structure and resolve, and still provides us with a spectrum of rhythms and cadences. Her voice is damaged and seasoned, showcasing gruff howls and a sweetened but still apprehensive higher register. Fiona Apple is back with bruises. 

Recorded without her label’s knowledge, and shortly after the controversial release of Extraordinary Machine in 2005, Idler Wheel is Fiona Apple’s pièce de résistance, a detachment from the pop music she’s been linked to. But distancing herself from hooks, major tonalities, and deep grooves still delivers demandingly catchy tunes, as full of vinegar as they are. Often, she’ll stray from the harmony of her own chord progressions, as on the painful “Regret”, or digress to a pitchless growl, like a runaway train slowly lifting up and taking flight. It is an album of contagious defiance, for an artist who has finally convinced herself of her own freedom. Now she’s just playing with her new toy.

Where her wild premises and paradoxes used to glide alongside lush orchestration, her sharp language now dominates. On “Valentine”, she regretfully reports, “While you were watching someone else / I stared at you and cut myself”. And though these secrets shake her roots and send her voice into a warble, she digs her feet in, and emerges unscathed, every time. The album’s lead single, Every Single Night feels like a manifesto of her strengths and weaknesses, accented by celeste and ephemeral percussion.

Other moments allow her sense of humor to rise to the surface. Her chorus on “Werewolf” leads you right over the edge, when she comforts herself, her lover, and us, saying, “Nothing wrong when / A song ends in a minor key”. She inches that statement closer to true with every song that passes. Her distaste for much of the world persists. “Periphery” critiques the pettiness of dating, and the men who have left her jaded. Apple is unafraid to call out the “peripheral idiots” and prettier girls that get chosen over her.

The album closes with “Hot Knife”, a smoldering vocal counterpoint that compares her relationship to melting butter. It starts slow and confident, and escalates to a a circus of rhythm and harmony (accompanied by her sister). It’s one of her best creations to date.

Idler is a privilege for Apple’s listeners. Despite personal struggle, the young girl who went renegade on the ’97 MTV Awards, and caused a stir over her label disagreements, has matured into an adult, and a braver musician than ever before. With her most vulnerable songs, she sounds impossibly strong. She follows no more rules but her own. This magnum opus shows a Fiona Apple that has finally, fully dropped the reins, realizing her musicality along with her own personality.

-

The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do is out now via Epic.

Watch the “Every Single Night” video.

 

By Aaron Lindenberg

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