The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do is Fiona Apple's long-awaited fourth studio album. It was commercially released in North America on June 19, 2012.
- Every Single Night
- Left Alone
- Anything We Want
- Hot Knife
It's been seven years — seven years! — since Extraordinary Machine. In other words, the period between Fiona Apple's third and fourth albums is nearly equal to the maximum allowed term of a president of the United States. It's nearly as much time as people spend in high school and college or university combined. Even the wait between When the Pawn... and Extraordinary Machine was only six years, and in that time the entire album was recorded, shelved and re-recorded.
What I'm trying to say is that "long-awaited" might be a bit of an understatement. If the wait for Extraordinary Machine taught us anything, it's that Ms. Apple does not unleash anything on the world until she believes it's perfect.
There's quite a bit on here that I like, and I really like the parts that I like. That said, I don't think it's going to dethrone the When the Pawn.../Extraordinary Machine tie for the highly sought after rank of "favourite" in my books.
When I first heard some of her live recordings, I was struck by how much more raw she sounds live in comparison to her studio releases. The difference is not anywhere near as distinct on this album. The production values seem to be markedly different than those of the previous albums; I get the sense some of these were recorded in one take so as to maximize the emotional effects, rather than record them multiple times in an effort to get things sounding "perfect."
If I were to summarize the album in one sentence, I would say that whether you like it or not, Fiona Apple is singing her heart out.
Track by track
I admit it: When I first saw video of a live performance of "Every Single Night", I was a little shellshocked. Maybe it was the sound quality. Maybe it was that I couldn't quite understand the words. Maybe it was the calm, quiet beginning that steeled itself into a more intense middle and turned into something that resembled a war cry. Having now heard the album version, I can report that it's more like an alternate-universe version of Extraordinary Machine (the song). The orchestration is minimal and the melody is unorthodox but is, especially on the war cry-esque chorus, oddly catchy.
Some of the reviews I've read have described the album as having an atonal quality. I think "Daredevil" is the song they're talking about. The chorus is especially unnerving, consisting of two multitracked vocal parts singing "Don't let me ruin me/I may need a chaperone" in non-unison above piano accompaniment that doesn't quite "match." It's been done deliberately, of course, and one assumes the unnerving quality is intended to match the theme ("I guess I just must be a daredevil/I don't feel anything until I smash it up"). The bridge contains some of the rawest singing I've ever heard from her outside of recordings of live performances ("See me out, look at me/I'm all the fishes in the sea"). If it wasn't already clear that this album was about the lady singing her heart out, for good or for ill, it sure is now.
"Valentine" is driven by vaguely jazz piano chords and a poppish vocal line addressed to an unnamed target. "Valentine," more than any other song on the album, could just as easily have appeared on Extraordinary Machine, though it also feels like it wouldn't quite have fit there. It also feels like it might be bound for release as single, sounding more suited to conventional radio airplay than most of the other tracks. The slow beginning's move into the more uptempo chorus, with its more optimistic lyrics ("I root for you, I love you/you you you you") almost sound like it could be taken from musical theatre.
Rolling Stone's review of The Idler Wheel... lists "Jonathan" as the album's low point, and I'm inclined to agree. I don't think it's a bad song as such, but it seems somewhat aimless. The suggestion is that the song is about her former relationship with Jonathan Ames, and given her tendency to not release anything until she's entirely happy with it, there's some method to her madness. I just can't figure out what it is. The piano part, especially the introduction, is vaguely reminscient of the works of Vince Guaraldi. (If you don't hear that one piano lick and picture the Peanuts characters skating around, you're better able to block out external visuals than I am.) "I don't want to talk about/I don't want to talk about anything," she sings. Maybe this is intentional. I don't know.
"Left Alone" is unlike any other in that it begins with a drum solo, then turns into a fast-paced, jazzy showcase for Apple's impressive vocal range. The chorus ("How can I ask anyone to love me/When all I do is beg to be left alone?") takes a sharp left turn into the slow and pensive before diving head-first back into the frantic verse. I think this would be more of a standout if the chorus weren't so markedly different from the rest of the song, but it's catchy.
If The Idler Wheel... has an equal to the slow, piano-driven, gorgeously crafted songs from Apple's previous albums, "Werewolf" is it. It contains some of the album's best lyrics ("I could liken to you a werewolf the way you left me for dead/But I admit that I provided a full moon") and some of its best vocal work. Remember that fierceness that pervaded the bridge in "To Your Love" off When the Pawn... and the chorus in "Parting Gift" on Extraordinary Machine? It comes back out to play in this song and it's lovely. I don't get the sampling of the screaming people that comes in towards the start of the final chorus, but I'd rather have that than strange musical departures that detract from the song itself.
With its rollicking low piano lines and soulful vocal part, "Periphery" might just be my favourite track on the album. I keep trying to think of a comparable song from her discography and keep coming up with "Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song)" from Extraordinary Machine because of its similar rhythm, but I'd say the vocals on this one are better even if the older song's lyrics might be better in my book. But it ends with Apple singing, first full-throated and then lightly in her highest register, apparently for no other reason than to sing for the sake of singing. I think it works.
Just Apple, piano and percussion, "Regret" is a little like what "Parting Gift" might have been like had it not really gone anywhere. The verses are sung quietly and the chorus is so raw and intense that it's practically being shouted. But there's no obvious path that the song's taking. That's fine, it's her perogative, but it's hard to follow a song that doesn't really seem to have much of a shape. This one is more for having on in the background than for singing wholeheartedly in the car.
Arranged for percussion, piano, bass or low guitar, "Anything We Want" is probably one of the more radio-friendly songs on the album. I hear it's in a movie. This is one of my other favourites, largely because of how much I love the bridge:
"We started out sipping the water and now we try to swallow the waves
And we try not to let those bastards get us down
We don't worry anymore 'cause we know when the guff comes we get brave
After all, look 'round
It's happenin', it's happenin', it's happenin' now"
I think I would have ended the album with this instead of with the next track.
I've read "Hot Knife" described as being like a round (and it is — it even features Apple's sister, Maude). The idea is that either the singer or the subject is butter or a hot knife, depending on which vocal line you're listening to. Even if you don't like it, and I can see how people might not, there's no denying the woman can sing and doesn't need to hide behind ornate orchestrations to prove the point.
After my first few listens I was so taken with the songs "Periphery," "Left Alone," "Werewolf" and "Anything We Want" that I was happily deeming it a complete success. After another listen straight through I've realized that I think this is the least even and the most hit-and-miss of Apple's albums. There are a couple of songs — "Jonathan" and "Regret," specifically — that I find myself skipping when they come up on shuffle on my MP3 player.
Having said that, there are songs from Tidal that I skip too, even 15 years later. To expect four flawless albums from any artist is unrealistic. Apple releases albums so rarely, and only when she's completely satisfied, that it's hard to feel ripped off. The fact that a couple of songs don't work for me is a small price to pay for the fact that so many of them do, and have done for 15 years. I've never bought one of her albums and come away wholly disappointed, feeling like she did it for the money or because she felt like she had to release an album for the sake of releasing an album.
(July 10, 2012: After a few weeks with it, even the parts I thought were less even have grown on me. Also, I saw her live. If you ever have the opportunity to see her live, you should.)
And in the end, even though I'm more inclined to reach for one of her first three albums when I'm in the mood to listen to one of her works straight through, it's hard to argue against Fiona Apple singing her heart out.
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The Idler Wheel... Album Review