Assuming a forty hour workweek, six weeks vacation plus a week’s worth of sick days per year, two years of downtime after Extraordinary Machine, and a six month gap between mastering and release, it took Fiona Apple an average of over 179 hours and twenty minutes to produce a single minute of music on The Idler Wheel. It represents the longest gap between studio releases in her already spasmodic career. But as the record’s earthy, stripped-down sounds creep through your skull, you’ll quickly see where all of that time has gone. These songs have been tinkered with tirelessly to become what they are.
Tidal and When the Pawn… were delicious anti-pop that brilliantly juxtaposed the sweet with the sour; Extraordinary Machine disposed of some of the youthful vitriol and injected her sound with newfound poise and light-footedness. On these previous efforts, Apple generally gave herself the chance to show off her talents as a vocalist, songwriter and musician in equal measure. But The Idler Wheel is, above all, a vehicle for her voice. Other than her piano and some jazzy (and very homemade-sounding) percussion, it’s the only instrument she needs. It completely dominates the album. In the end, how much you enjoy the final product will likely depend on what you think of her singing.
This isn’t for want of better accompaniments, but they are often overpowered. Their secrets only begin to reveal themselves after several close listens. Apple’s inflections will grab you from the opening line, and her heart-wrenching stories will too. Troubled romances unravel with excruciating detail, and names are given. “Jonathan” is named for Jonathan Ames, whom Apple dated for several years. “Kiss me while I calculate and calibrate/ Don’t make me explain/ I don’t wanna talk about anything,” she sings, simultaneously withdrawn and combative. You can feel her struggling to contain her panic, and the pent up force within is nerve-jangling.
Apple is notorious for her meek stage-presence and aversion to the spotlight. She’s an unconformity in a culture that obsesses over those who are obsessed with themselves. The profoundly intimate nature of The Idler Wheel runs as a countercurrent to this persona; she has her soul on display here. After everything she has been through, she willingly throws herself through the wringer all over again: “I just wanna feel everything,” she confesses on “Every Single Thing.” With the emotional battering she seems to have taken, numbness almost seems preferable. There is a point on “Regret” where her singing deteriorates into what sounds like screams of anguish. It’s hard to listen to, unsettling in the way that eavesdropping on a domestic dispute might be, but the humanity and honesty bleed through.
The lyrics are some of the most thoughtful of Apple’s career. “Werewolf” slings out poetic contradictions hand over fist: “We are like a wishing well and a bolt of electricity/But we can still support each other/ All we gotta do is avoid each other.” Apple seems almost as eager to avoid herself, but even though these songs go places you’re not sure you want them to, it’s even harder to stop listening. After a slow start, “Valentine” puffs itself up capriciously, as if it might shatter at any time: “I’m amorous but out of reach/ A still life drawing of a peach.”
Despite its fragility, The Idler Wheel is nothing if not deliberate. Everything has its place, and studio trickery used sparingly and tastefully. “Hot Knife” is more of a collage than a song, using loops to fold Apple’s voice over on itself to gorgeous effect. Although there are difficult patches, challenging isn’t quite the right word to be using here. Since there’s so little to grab onto, The Idler Wheel might be better understood as an emotional statement rather than a musical one. It’s hooky in its own subdued way; the melodies work their way back to you once the music stops, but nothing jumps out right away. Handsome almost in spite of itself, The Idler Wheel is poignant, nuanced and quietly unforgettable.