Every interview Fiona Apple gives and every song she writes is like her personal social-networking feed: a candid, unfiltered reflection of what she’s chosen to share publicly at that instant, without much in the way of forethought or consideration of repercussions. Indicative of this are Apple’s statements about her latest album, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw, and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do, which she has described without reservation as “the excrement of [her] life…the stuff that [she] really needed to get out.” It’s not a polished sentiment, but it’s vintage Apple in that it speaks to a deep-seated, compulsive need to purge her subconscious, however messy the results may be.
It’s that messiness that’s often made Apple’s work so rewarding, and The Idler Wheel is by far her most dense and ambitious album. Whatever her creative process actually looks like, the idiosyncrasies of her songwriting only heighten the impression that she’s just winging it when she walks into the studio. “Left Alone” captures both Apple’s tendency to prioritize wordplay over coherence (she rhymes “orotund mutt” with “moribund slut”) and her ability to write a gut-check of a line like “How can I ask anyone to love me/When all I do is beg to be left alone?”
Apple is no less incisive or verbose on “Werewolf,” noting, “I could liken you to a shark the way you bit off my head/But then again, I was waving around a bleeding open wound.” In terms of conventional songwriting, that line eschews the basic meter of the song’s arrangement, and Apple doesn’t take advantage of the natural cadence of her word choices to make for something more musical. But shoehorning her ideas into those kinds of conventions just isn’t Apple’s m.o., and “Werewolf” is a reminder of her uncanny gift for making her peculiar songwriting sound catchy.
While it may not produce another crossover hit like “Criminal,” The Idler Wheel is still an accessible album. “Hot Knife” is filtered through Apple’s cockeyed POV (she chants, “I’m a hot knife/He’s a pat of butter,” as the song’s hook), but it’s structured like a classic pop tune. The album’s lead single, “Every Single Night,” finds Apple engaged in “a fight with [her] brain,” but she offers listeners two fairly easy “ins” with the track’s sing-song melody and the repeated use of one of Popeye’s well-known catchphrases.
The tension between Apple’s anguished lyrics and performance and the song’s cheery arrangement is what makes “Every Single Night” such a powerful opening salvo, and she and co-producer Charley Drayton make smart, carefully measured use of that precise kind of tension over the course of the album. Drayton’s background as a drummer is evident in the skittering percussion lines of “Jonathan” and “Valentine,” and the dramatic shifts in tempo throughout the album recall the adventurous rhythms from When the Pawn…. As with Apple’s writing, the arrangements on The Idler Wheel convey a sense of spontaneity and fearlessness. It’s a busy album from a production standpoint, but it’s to Apple and Drayton’s credit that it doesn’t sound overworked.
The Idler Wheel feels thoroughly modern because of Apple’s lack of an internal editor. The album’s tone is one of urgency, of needing more than anything to make these exact statements at this exact moment. To that end, The Idler Wheel captures what’s made Apple one of the defining artists of her generation: a persona that’s reflected changing views of private versus public spheres. The results have often been misunderstood, but Apple has continued to present herself as someone who refuses to resort to niceties of tact or self-censorship when she engages with her audience.