Finally. FINALLY! After seven long years we are graced with a new Fiona Apple record—her fourth in total! It’s astounding to think that she’s been in the record business for 16 years and has only released four albums. Her third release Extraordinary Machine was shrouded in internet scandal about a shelved album and her record company forcing her to stay silent. This scandal sparked a fan-revolt resulting in Apple being able to re-record the album the way she wanted. However, her record company never intended for her to be silent, they simply wanted to oversee their investment when after spending near a million dollars the first time around, Apple declared that the Brion version didn’t have her pulse and wanted to re-record the entire record. Her label, justifiably taken aback by this request agreed, upon condition that they would be sent each song as it was recorded. Apple, incensed by this demand, decried “NO!” and then rumors abound that the big bad record company was forcing the poor defenseless artist to stay silent. Then we all discovered that the original Jon Brion-produced record was much better than the Apple-induced re-recording. This time around, Fiona waited seven years due simply to the fact that she disliked the head of her label and wanted to wait out his reign until someone else took over who would do her album justice. Basically, Fiona is just picky.
The fallout from releasing one album every seven years (and being as brilliant as she is) is that the anticipation for said record grows to such an exponential degree that only few artists can deliver. Fiona managed to satisfy with Extraordinary Machine mainly because Brion’s version leaked and fans could pick and choose which tracks they liked best. That, and the fact that the Elizondo-produced offical release wasn’t that bad, just not as good as Brion’s version. When The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (or The Idler Wheel for short) expectations and excitement rose quite high. Three albums in and this woman has maintained an impressive if incomparable track record. When “Every Single Night” (the verbose and often times a-melodic lead single) was released, there was some hope that this was a quirky teaser for the album, and not indicative of the entire record—kind of how “Extraordinary Machine” serves more as a conceptual framework to that record of the same name. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
The Idler Wheel is a continuously verbose, flip-flopping and often times impenetrable record that pushes your limits of acceptance over “pretentious artistic creativity”. However, it doesn’t start out this way. In fact, after your 20th listen of “Every Single Night” you may actually begin to warm up to it. So, when those chimes start and Apple begins to sing “Every single night / I endure the flight of little wings of white-flamed / Butterflies in any brain,” you may find yourself anticipating the onset of a really great record. And the second and third track definitely deliver on this anticipation. “Daredevil” is a wonderful and engaging tune bracing an all-too-familiar theme of self-doubt and destruction declaring her need of a chaperone so as not to ruin her current situation. “Valentine”, a sorrowful and lovelorn track about yearning, is another example of the romantic insight that Apple does best. We’ve been evidenced to this in tracks like “Love Ridden” and “I Know”, but this time around there is less self-obsession in her tone and more mature acceptance of something that hasn’t entirely gone her way, ironic given her insistence that she’s “a tulip in a cup / I stand no chance of growing up.” And this is where it ends… at least for a while.
“Jonathan” begins auspiciously enough, with train-track percussion and augmented jazzy piano notes played over and over again. Repeated listens though do the opposite of what many Fiona tracks accomplish—repeated listens serve to cement the fact that “Jonathan” is simply too thick and effusive to warm up to. It also suffers from being paired with the equally thick “Left Alone”—a syncopated rhythm heavy tune about, well, wanting to be left alone. Probably the most garrulous track on the album, Fiona sings: “You made your major overtures when you were a sure and orotund mutt / And I was still a dewy petal rather than a moribund slut / My love wrecked you, you packed to twirl your skirt at the palace / it hurt more than it ought to hurt, I went to work to cultivate a callous.” Both tracks sound like they’re super artistic, reminiscent of jazz trios, and they should totally be loved for their creative conjuncture of jazz and pop—but really, they’re both far too indulgent to penetrate. This is what ultimately plagues the album from achieving the brilliance that it purports. The choices of rhythmic arrangements and a-melodic structure, offset with Apple’s tendency to scream through some of her lyrics (as if screams and ludicrously wavering vibratos help press upon the severity of her point, even though they only really serve to cue the listener to skip to the next track) ultimately shroud The Idler Wheel in too many odd choices making it (for the most part) an uneasy listen.
It’s hard to make a way into a record that works so hard to keep you out. Apple’s records have always required a handful of listens in order to become engulfed in her thick molasses-like wondrousness, however, The Idler Wheel seems to require far too many listens to really reach that ‘voilà!’ moment—sure to result in exhausted listeners who try desperately to love the record as much as they think they should, or as much as critics are telling them they should. There simply isn’t enough variation on the record to grasp on to those tracks that leave the listener unsettled—probably an unforeseen consequence of foregoing a producer in favor of a recording engineer. And while half the album (“Every Single Night”, “Daredevil”, “Valentine”, “Werewolf”, and “Anything We Want”) is quite inspired, the other half (“Jonathan”, “Left Alone”, “Periphery”, “Regret” and “Hot Knife”) is just too bizarre and atypical to warm up to. It’s a shame, really.
The Idler Wheel isn’t necessarily (even at its core) a bad record. What The Idler Wheel is, is a record that is purposefully and inauthentically difficult for the sake of being difficult. There is difficult music that is provoking and challenging and authentic (see for instance Carina Round, PJ Harvey, or Me’Shell Ndegeocello’s “The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams”), and yet Apple’s album seems to twist simple arrangements and sentiments into an unnecessarily uneasy listen, which ultimately results in the record being often times tiresome and boring. Its an album that does not invite more than a few listens. This, compounded with the fact that The Idler Wheel is probably the only Fiona Apple record we’re going to get this decade(!), explains the lower than expected rating. Half of the album is magnificent, and stylistically contradistinct, while the other half exists in some offbeat and off-putting terrain that will either elude its listeners, or alienate them. Fortunately, there is every indication that The Idler Wheel isn’t the beginning of a career headed for suck-ville (like so many similar artists from the ‘90s). As inaccessible and uneasy as the record is, it can still be praised for its bravery of musical defiance—something in which Apple has always been a trailblazer.