Necessity is the mother of invention. No one embodies this in modern music more than Fiona Apple. Only when there is emotional necessity for catharsis does she take to her piano and craft what will become her next album. It’s made each album an event and grand manifesto of the years since the last album. This time it was the longest gap yet, with 7 years since her belabored album, Extraordinary Machine. Will it satisfy those devoted fans who’ve waited so long for their emotional muse? Yes and no…
The world met Fiona Apple in 1996, and it was a fantastic time for female musicians. With the death of grunge icon Kurt Cobain and the scene he was the reluctant figurehead of slowly decaying, 90s angst took on a new perspective – a feminine one. Artists like Tori Amos, PJ Harvey, Alanis Morissette and Sarah McLachlan ushered in a new era of appreciation for estrogen-soaked rock (see Lillith Fair). The world welcomed Fiona with open arms, her debut album Tidal selling over three million copies and third single “Criminal” became a runaway hit complete with a provocative video.
Her sound was a sublime blend of the best bits of the aforementioned artists: the confessional/emotional outpouring via piano like Tori Amos, the tenderness of McLachlan and smooth sensuality that was akin to R&B goddess Sade. When The Pawn… kept many of those same aspects everyone fell in love with but traded some of the piano-lounge moments instead for quirky pop and drum loops. “Paper Bag” and “Fast As You Can” proved she could still come up with catchy melodies to accompany her clever and affecting lyrics. The songs were just as emotionally hard-hitting but you could tell she was venturing off into something else.
Fiona Apple’s Every Single Night
Then finally after six years Extraordinary Machine arrived. At times it almost sounded like show tunes compared to her earlier work – a touch of whimsy in the instrumentation of tracks like the title cut. Yet if listeners weren’t put off by the musical differences, they found the same brooding songstress contemplating relationships, personal dysfunction and all the other familiar topics of her oeuvre. The melodies were a bit subtler but it was still quality work. Her latest keeps the subtlety of Machine yet hews closer to her past work in tone. No, this isn’t referring to the wordy full title of the album: The Idler Wheel Is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do. Sonically it sits as a unique piece of work in her catalog. The arrangements are sparser than ever and found sound loops and beats abound.
“Every Single Night” twinkles to life like a lullaby as Fiona tells us, “I just want to feel everything.” It’s a beautifully fragile yet bold song admitting to the mental torment people subject themselves to. “Daredevil” has a sway-inducing beat while we hear of her need for a chaperone. It also contains some of her rawest vocals as she sounds borderline hoarse in some moments of shouted exasperation one never would have suspected of her a decade ago. “Valentine” sounds deceptively sweet and tender, but is actually the details of an emotionally stunted person who claims she will “never grow up.”
Childhood seems like a prevalent theme with this album, whether in the lyrics mentioned of not growing up, needing chaperones or in “Anything We Want” where she begs a guy to “pretend we’re eight years old playing hooky.” There’s even the sound of shouting children in album standout “Werewolf” where she details the all-too-familiar relationship situation where someone seems completely normal and then changes for the worse when with you. It’s a song that strikes nerves the way her older songs do. It proves she still has a knack for using clever wordplay to convey feelings and situations we’ve all had to deal with.
Fiona Apple’s Werewolf
Some of her peers have grown up and out of their confessions of raw, uncomfortable thoughts to become more adult contemporary (Amos), but Fiona seems to be in a perpetual teenage mindset. Don’t misunderstand, this is said as the highest of compliments: it means each thought or emotion comes from intense passion and equal importance, as if she can’t help but spill it out. Many artists’ passion wanes with time and the creation of music becomes more like a job or reflex. Hers always comes from a place far more immediate and pure. Listen to “Regret” and you just know she feels every single moment of the song with fervor.
Unfortunately the music doesn’t always match up to the lyrics or the heft she puts behind her delivery. “Periphery” has some great things to say but musically never seems to get off the ground and while it has some great drums, “Left Alone” just seems like the rant of an agoraphobic. “Anything We Want” has some vivid imagery but the music just doesn’t do much—it all hinges on her vocal delivery which may or may not be enough for some listeners.
Album closer “Hot Knife” is a bizarre little number that spends half its time with a choir of Fionas singing in the round like a strange Broadway musical and the other half as a gospel-tinged Big Band-era song. It’s even..dare I say…positive? It wraps up the album in stark contrast to the majority of its contents. It’s almost as if to say, “Despite all the bitter, conflicted feelings love cuts through me every time and I can’t help it. I maybe even like it.” That’s quite alright as long as it continues to produce music of this quality. Idler Wheel hits almost every right note a fan of her music would want in a new release. Welcome back Fiona Apple, we’ve missed you.
Jarad Matula | Senior Writer