This isn’t the Fiona Apple album you’ve been waiting for.
Sure, it has a characteristically wordy title that you won’t be able to remember and don’t understand (an idler wheel connects things to other things but doesn’t do much itself, which is a metaphor for Apple’s role as a cog in the . . . never mind). And true, it has arrived, as Fiona Apple albums tend to do, after a leisurely seven-year interval.
“The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do” may be Apple’s best album yet, though it’s the one you’ll least want to hear again. It’s as brilliant as you’d hoped, as surly as a teenager and as temperamental as a thoroughbred. These are acoustic ballads with bared teeth, draped over skeleton frames of piano and oddball percussion. “Idler Wheel,” made in collaboration with Apple’s percussionist Charley Drayton, is primordial, raw. It gets better every time you hear it.
And yet: It will go out of its way to make you not like it. Its melodies will hold you at arm’s length. It luxuriates in its dissonance — to a perverse extent. Perfectly promising songs will trail off into awkwardly syncopated bursts of sound, or howls of rage, or uncomfortable refrains. Occasionally, a jazz passage will float by — otherwise, you shouldn’t expect too much.
It hasn’t always been thus: Apple’s past releases, like her last, 2005’s rollicking and altogether remarkable “Extraordinary Machine,” have leaned toward stick-to-your-ribs, Gilbert and Sullivan-esque pop. But “Idler Wheel” is an experiment in musical garment-rending calculated to expose every nerve ending down to gristle and bone, not to please. In recent interviews, Apple has discussed her living as a virtual shut-in and her increasing disconnect with the outside world. She has reared herself very carefully, and “Idler Wheel,” with its claustrophobic ballads, its lack of external reference points, is the inevitable, airless result. “I’m a tulip in a cup / I stand no chance of growing up,” she humble brags on the mordant, gorgeous “Valentine.” “I’ve made my peace / I’m dead / I’m done / I watch you live to have my fun.”
But here’s the thing: Although “Idler Wheel” is Apple’s most savage album yet, it’s not her unhappiest. It’s almost entirely bereft of warmth but not humor. The great “Werewolf” is a jaunty breakup tune (“We are like a wishing well and a bolt of electricity / We can still support each other / All we gotta do is avoid each other”) that serves as a bridge between the old material and the new. “Left Alone” coasts along on the ghost of a drumroll and time-and-a-half lyrics that rhyme “orotund mutt” and “moribund sl--,” because Apple is the reigning queen of Things People Don’t Say in Real Life But Maybe Wish They Had and because few other songwriters take such palpable, carnal pleasure in the warping and bending of words.
Every lyric is delivered with clockwork precision, even those (like the rickety piano song “Jonathan,” in honor of “Bored to Death” creator Jonathan Ames, Apple’s ex) sung through clenched teeth. “Hot Knife,” a lust song packaged inside a zoot-suit-era melody and supplemented by stacked, crescendoing vocals, ends things on an uncharacteristically cheerful note. Things never stay that way for very long in Apple’s hothouse world, but you’ll root for her next time just the same.
Stewart is a freelance writer.
“Valentine,” “Periphery,” “Werewolf”