Album Review: The Idler Wheel…

Fiona Apple shows off her Alanis Morrisette moment on the first track of The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do, the perfectly too long title of her highly acclaimed recently released fourth album. She then takes the second track, “Daredevil,” to show off her Janis Joplin moment. Had anyone but Fiona been singing, these moments could have felt like requisite tributes to the most legendary (and atypical) female singer/songwriters. Instead, they stand as a reminder to Fiona’s stratospheric talent, and even though she has only released four albums in sixteen years, we feel compelled to address her on a first name basis with Janis, Aretha, Alanis, and Beyonce. These tokens are thankfully dropped early, because with just over forty minutes of new material, it would be best for Fiona to stick to Fiona.

Maybe the most impressive thing about Fiona is her willingness to diverge from a classical pattern of songwriting she seemed to have mastered as a middle schooler. That seems to explain her decision to let a xylophone and marimba carry “Every Single Night’s” melancholy melody, or the neurotic piano playing on “Johnathan” and “Left Alone,” because I highly doubt even the most accomplished dual threats could carry a song these ways (could you imagine Feist, for instance, with steel drums?). She pulls it off because she commands her most complicated instrument, her voice, with such aplomb it’s a wonder why she allows any other vocalists on her productions. Even if she didn’t have the experience or the talent to pen such originally poetic lyrics, her voice itself could probably waft its way through college town coffee houses.

Despite her well-established talents, more attention needs to be paid to her piece work. She organizes the album tremendously. The first half is typical Fiona, a heartsick woman loathing in well-articulated self pity spiraling slowly into a pitiful but still well-articulated insanity. It culminates on the breathtaking “Left Alone,” in which she rhymes “orotund mutt” with “moribund slut” (the latter of which becoming my favorite insult) before unwinding herself in a jaw-dropping fury of painful introspection. “Tears calcify in my tummy/fears coincide with my tow,” she sings with a falsetto that would agitate orotund mutts and an image that would inspire the classical surrealists. Her most powerful lines are often her simplest, however, as she concludes her thoughts by singing “How can I ask someone to love me/when all I do is begged to be left alone?” She doesn’t seem to live in an envious mental state, but the product of her depression is about as matured as anyone has ever produced.

“Werewolf” is the album’s highlight, a slow and comforting meditation snapping Fiona out of her boy trouble. Her turn on similes for metric purposes is fascinating (“I could liken you to a werewolf…”) and her calm delivery ensures the listener she has learned her life-depraving lesson. It allows Fiona to connect to her listeners as the resolution to something they’ve probably heard before, but more importantly, especially after the torrent of the first half of the album, it allows them to breathe. It seems like the problem is solved.

Except it isn’t, because this is a Fiona Apple album, and as precedent shows, resolutions cannot be made. Fiona takes the remaining four songs to bring her problems full circle, slowly falling head-over-heels again for the same, if not a similar, man. She delves back into more traditional composition, which should appease those so understandably turned off by her Catch-22 insanity, but she at times gets cute with her lyrics. Even physics majors would groan at the opening line to “Anything We Want” (“My cheeks were reflecting the longest wavelength”) one of Fiona’s few pretentious follies, but the second half is less challenging and potentially more enjoyable than the first.

She finishes with her most impressive composition, the nearly a capella and multi-layered “Hot Knife.” Her call-and-response mechanism excites an otherwise one-dimensional percussion, but singing “If I’m butter/then he’s a hot knife” just gives us reason to give up on her sanity. It’s said often but not often enough that suffering breads talent, but it’s pretty difficult to sympathize with a grown woman singing “Every single night’s a fight with my brain.” Of course, our incredulity is mitigated with wonderfully challenging products of her brain battles, and this album gives us reason to sympathize for another seven years before she releases her next LP.

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