Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel: How Does It Feel To Feel?


“I just wanna feel everything,” Fiona Apple declares on the chorus for “Every Single Night,” the first track on her fourth album, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (Epic). She stretches out the word “feel” out into six syllables, and that verbal calisthenic is a portent for the rest of the record; the opening lullaby has her vividly describing the way her racing mind keeps her awake at night, replaying interactions with others on endless loop and sprouting ideas long after the sun has sunk.

The notion that simply letting emotions run their course through one’s body is in fact an exercise fraught with peril has orbited both Apple’s work and her public persona since 1996, when she was 18 and her first album, Tidal, received both Buzz Bin status (a precious currency in the mid-’90s alt-rock era) and widespread critical acclaim. It’s understandable that someone with so many tappable reserves of emotion would be so on edge that she wouldn’t want to sleep, at least as a way to keep any subconscious thoughts from bubbling up unexpectedly and further coloring her waking hours.

Fiona Apple, “every Single Night”

On The Idler Wheel, Apple once again shows that merely wanting to open oneself up to any sort of emotion after suffering 34 years of wounds, from simple social slights to much deeper lacerations, is a scary prospect. Yet taking that plunge into the unknown is worth doing, not only for the way it allows hurt to pass but for the way that passage enables growth. In a world of animated-GIF reaction shots and retweets turning human expression into a nuance-obliterating, endlessly self-cannibalizing, pop-culture-referencing semaphore system, Apple’s willingness (or maybe the correct word is need) to dig deep and pick the scabs, to excavate the black gunk that has settled at the bottom of one’s heart after so long, is a welcome shock. That she then subsequently articulates how those emotions came to be without resorting to cliché or puffy metaphor, while placing her lyrics atop music that spins wildly afield of the idea of “pop” yet still has a Krazy Glue-like ability to stick to the brain, only serves to make her stand out more. (It also goes a long way toward explaining why the news of her first album after seven years of dormancy caused even the most gimlet-eyed pop pundits to shed a tear or two.)

The Idler Wheel has a larger musical scope than her last album, the masterful Extraordinary Machine; parts of it sound downright avant. This time out, though, the arrangements—especially when compared to that lush 2005 release—are so spare that they cut to the bone. The thunderclap pianos and brushed drums sound like they could catch fire from a match being lit in their vicinity; Apple’s low voice is all sinewy vibration, adding to the potentially pyrotechnic atmosphere. (While her vocals are at the center of every track, the contributions from percussionist Charley Drayton, who recorded the album with Apple, are key to the album’s frills-free feel.) “Left Alone,” the album’s midpoint, starts off with a building-collapse drum breakdown, then has Apple singing in a rapid-fire near-monotone of a time when she was “a dewy petal/Rather than a moribund slut,” and therefore more vulnerable. Yet this up-close self-examination is a pose of sorts; the frantic pace breaks on the chorus, and so does her voice, as she asks: “How can I ask anyone to love me/When all I do is beg to be left”—she repeats the second half of this couplet two more times, her voice cracking on the “all,” before stretching out the word “alone,” over and over again. On verse two, she laments not being able to enjoy a good guy; take it as a sign that, as she sang on the Tidal hit “Criminal,” she’s still able to have “been a bad, bad girl.” Meanwhile, “Periphery” has her railing against someone for whom she’s too real, who would rather attend the “good parties” thrown by people in the social churn and settle down with someone who has “a more even-tempered air.”

Fiona Apple, “Anything We Want” (live on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon)

Declaring the types of emotions that don’t fit into character-limited text entry boxes—or even paying attention to one’s unwillingness to engage with them—can be terrifying but thrilling at the same time; the playfulness of the arrangements, and the way Apple lets loose with a piercing falsetto here and there, also operate as a testament to the endorphin rush that comes along with dispensing some Real Talk. On the lovelorn “Anything We Want”—the only new track that Apple performed during a frantic, muscular six-song set at the Top of the Standard last night—the segue from a fantasy about pretending “we’re eight years old playin’ hooky” to one decidedly more adult draws a bright line between the joys of childhood and adulthood. But this feeling of euphoria is most evident on the closing number “Hot Knife,” a rolling, sparse love song that uses an extended melting-butter analogy to make its point about desire. (Its brief lyrics also have one of my favorite images on the record: “He makes my heart a CinemaScope screen/ Showing a dancing bird of paradise.”) Apple sings of how her desired paramour slices through her being like the titular implement, but underneath, Apple and her sister, Maude Maggart, sing of the relationship’s power dynamic being flipped—”If I get a chance, I’m gonna show him that he’s never gonna need another, never need another,” Apple and Maggart repeat, over and over again. This fantasia switcheroo, buried as it is in both the mix and at the end of the album, is not only eye-opening to unearth, it serves as a counterpoint to Apple’s opening salvo about being kept awake until the break of dawn by her racing brain; even those people who seem like they’re ready to bare it all have secrets that only the night can hold.

Fiona Apple plays the Governors Ball at Randalls Island on June 24.