The Idler Wheel… – Fiona Apple (review)

“The Idler Wheel…” sounds a barren affair in terms of production but the sparse orchestration is perfectly pitched throughout and serves to enhance every aspect of the songs with its minimalism. It’s as though co-producer Charley Drayton has recognized that Fiona Apple’s power comes from her acrobatic vocal instrument and has kept everything else, bar the jarring piano, at a safe distance from his obviously bruised cohort. As such, the lurking percussion, like a black shape brooding out of sight in a noir alleyway, barely infringes on the discordant duo of visceral voice and killer keys. The drums skittle in the shadows like a henchman whose muscle Fiona doesn’t need. The presence is an ominous feeling rather than a tangible threat.

All of which leaves Apple’s vocal delivery to unsettle the listener while the piano jabs with menace. Her voice leads in every way. It rolls through the scales, hitting high notes perfectly and falling by the wayside in off-kilter minor keys and swooping moans. At times, she’s soft and gentle, a velvet-gloved iron fist; at others, she drags her voice like a three-pronged tattoo needle scratching quotes of heartache and anger across your skin. It’s innovative and unsettling, scuzzy free-form jazz swooping into bittersweet ballad on unsettling chord changes. As she sings in the excellent Werewolf: “Nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key.” Given the great effect Fiona achieves through the use of the discordant and disturbing, I’ve gotta agree with the girl there.

It’s invigorating but uncomfortable at times. Just when you think Fiona could be showing her vulnerable side, like on the scarily raw “Valentine”, the lace sleeves roll up to expose scars and ink. “When you were watching someone else, I stared at you and cut myself”. If the voice itself can be demanding, the lyrics can be even more scathing and acerbic. These are stories from the psychiatrist’s couch; dark narratives which would fill notebooks with analysis. But the composition is genius at times despite the twisted source material. The imagery is darkly comic and perfectly formed at times: “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.”

It’s not all broken, damaged heartache. It’s bleak, yes, but there’s beauty in bundles here. There’s a yearning for connection as “Left Alone” reveals: “How can I ask anyone to love me when all I do is beg to be left alone?” It makes you want to try.  On “Jonathan,” her “captain of a capsized ship” sounds more captive than lover. She sounds obsessed when she tells him “I like watching you live” and demands that he “tolerate my little fist tugging on your forest chest.”

All-in-all, it’s an emotionally tiring experience without even realizing it. While “The Idler Wheel is…” is an experiment in self-flaggelation to a certain extent, it’s delivered so perfectly amongst soaring musical excellence that you travel barefoot along Fiona Apple’s glass-strewn road unaware of the deepening cuts while the spit and bile fleck your clothes, unnoticed like soft rain falling from a bruised sky.


Finding fault is difficult in the delivery, production and construction of this album but when pushed there are a number of songs which rise above the others, such as “Werewolf” for its almost light-hearted tale of a dysfunctional relationship. Apple’s imagery is at its best here as she highlights the differences between herself and the lover who “like the lava of the volcano shot up hot from under the sea” and “made an island of me.” Few songs on this album touched this writer more than “Valentine” with its tale of rejection and desperate longing: “I made it to a dinner date…My teardrops seasoned every plate.” But it’s “Daredevil” which gets the replay treatment the most. Rarely has a story of intended self-destruction been so eloquently presented.

Next Steps

Where does she go from here? More therapy perhaps? Let’s hope not. If talking (singing) through the pain and suffering leads to closure and peace of mind, one can only hope for our sakes, not hers, that there’s a lot more hurt in there.

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