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Fiona Apple stood onstage last spring at Stubb's in Austin, during her Wednesday-night South by Southwest set, and assessed the crowd between songs. She looked more muscular, her hair darker and wilder than the last time I'd seen her, when I was 19, and she was only a couple years older. Then, she was promoting 1999's When the Pawn, the follow-up to her 1996 debut, Tidal, both of which placed the singer in the headlines and margins of the pop-culture conversation. The fans back then were not so imaginary: The high school friend I attended the concert with threw her bra onstage.
Last spring, Apple was back in our arms again, with her first album in seven years. All of her albums have been personal, confessional readings of a sort, and her fans devoted listeners. Over the past 15 years, many of us, myself included, have matured from pained, shy teenagers to more confident thirtysomethings along with her. That can't be said of many pop stars, who often outgrow their fan bases, or vice versa, as trends come and go.
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Her critics have never been imaginary, either. Back in September, Apple was arrested and jailed in the Texas border town of Sierra Blanca for hash possession. Many media outlets rolled out the tired "Fiona Apple is crazy" argument that began around the time of her 1997 MTV Music Awards "This world is bullshit" acceptance speech. Apple addressed fans at shows after her release, and the press chose to print several of her more obtuse quotes on the situation out of context to further the crazy conversation. A bizarre, misogynistic follow-up letter from the Hudspeth County sheriff's Public Affairs Office asserted that "two weeks ago, nobody in the country cared about what you had to say—now that you've been arrested, it appears your entire career has been jump-started."
By her own admission, though, "crazy" has been a refrain on Apple's previous three albums, the last being 2005's Extraordinary Machine. Last year's The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do is mostly free of the accusation, despite the slightly wild-eyed title. It's almost exclusively her and a piano, accompanied by percussionist Charley Drayton, who used things like Velcro, gravel, and "thighs" as instruments. Also, the imagery is more vivid and aware; she shows us werewolves, volcanoes, and knives, all things potentially deadly, as well as analogies for desire, which might be the crux of the album.
Unlike the younger pop stars of 2012, like Grimes or Rihanna, who are playing with a more progressive, future-tense version of feminism, power, and ownership, Apple is still working in the present. She is not selling a rebellious image or mentality, or mining the Tumblr crowd for page views, just sharing an emotional weight. With little pre-promotion, just a devoted fan base hungry for new material, she released one of the most well-received albums of the year.
Apple once again wrestles with the idea of mind as machine, but The Idler Wheel's rambly title is just the skeleton. Here, Apple's voice is the main instrument that gives it pulse and breath, often growing from cadenced whisper to heaving scream within a few lines. Right from opener "Every Single Night," we understand this is a machine of her design, and the domestic dream state of the song is spelled out via poetic physical imagery: "The rib is a shell/And the heart is a yolk/And I just made a meal for us both to choke on." Throughout the album, I am reminded of a line from a Nikki Giovanni poem: "It seems no matter how/I try I become more difficult to hold/I am not an easy woman to want."
Over the years, Apple has learned how to deal with the media, and she is good at doing a bit of improv. That comes across in The Idler Wheel's confidence. "I just want to feel everything," she sings on "Every Single Night," elongating six words to 12. She's cataloging her mental state, putting it all out there to set the scene. Shouldn't we, as artists, but moreover sentient beings, want to feel everything? Like Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in Letters to a Young Poet: "Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don't know what work these conditions are doing inside you?"
There are now four albums documenting the work of these conditions. The Idler Wheel is Apple versus her mind, doing a dance. Sometimes she steps on her own toes. We may be imaginary. She's only human.