“The Idler Wheel…” – Fiona Apple

5 stars (out of 5)


Product DetailsFiona Apple in many ways remains unchanged; in some ways she’s regressed. As an artist she appears to have no interest at all in promoting her music other than the now incredibly old fashioned ways of performing live (small venues, not many of them and not very often), a funny, surreal and slimy video that accompanies the first single and 2, maybe 3, interviews. No twitter, no viral campaigns, no personal epiphany involving babies and spiritual enlightenment (hello Alanis), no fashion spreads and absolutely no reinvention. ‘You were a sure and orotund mutt and I was still a dewy petal rather than a moribund slut’ is a pretty typical, lyrical summation of how Fiona Apple is feeling in 2012 and how she’s been feeling for the past 15 years. But this intriguing and intimate album, her forth and self produced with Charley Drayton, succeeds in being the most outstanding of her career.

Every Single Night” (video clip) was released as the first single a month or so before the album and from the outset confirms that sonically, subtle changes may have taken place but little has really changed. Footsteps in gravel, hand and thigh claps, brushed drums and natural sound effects are looped up and serve as a backdrop to the Apple’s piano playing that, along with her deep, clear vocals, take centre stage on every track.  It starts quiet, gets loud, goes quiet and gets loud again. It has a prettiness to it that betrays the madness that Fiona sings of but also a rowdy and raucous vocal on the chorus that is something that she returns to again and again on this collection and is something that was only hinted at on previous releases. No strings this time around (heavily featured on the Jon Brion-produced, and subsequently scrapped, superior version of previous album “Extraordinary Machine”) which initially disappointed me, but they aren’t necessary. Apple is such a formidable song writer and the subtle but effective industrial feel of all these raw, natural elements suits the lyrical themes perfectly; they are in no need of additional embellishments.

Werewolf” sits in the centre of the 10 songs here and would be the perfect track to start with if you were unaware of Apple’s talent as a songwriter, vocalist and musician. Staccato, bossy piano chords and a see sawing vocal melody with Apple comparing her lover to various attacking entities, all which she’s encouraged and is a willing victim of and a defiant middle eight. Songs this powerful and this melodic are hard to construct, believe me, and if you’re listening on headphones beware the 2 minute 9 second mark; if you’re home you’ll probably go to close the window and then realise that it wasn’t open in the first place. Little touches like this involve us in Apple’s world in ways that other artists would never think of.

Left Alone”, “Daredevil” and “Periphery” all adopt similar song structures and play like sisters; a faster pace with tongue twisting lyrics and sticky melodies, sandpapery scratchy percussion, pounding piano and those agonised, sardonic vocals high in the mix. Fiona Apple is a self confessed loner and homebody, (‘I can love the same man in the same bed in the same city but not in the same room, it’s a pity’ in the self explanatory “Left Alone”) happily so, and her relationships are not traditional and not long-term and maybe not even required and this is what moves her to write, it seems. She explores and expresses her desire to be understood as an outsider and to live in a way that seems natural to her and this is what her songs are about and have been since 1996’s Tidal debut. “Jonathan” for example is about an actual person; ex-lover director and writer Jonathan Ames. The lyrics are somewhat oblique, thankfully for him, with the repeated hook of ‘I don’t want to talk about anything’ actually speaking volumes. Like 2009’s “O Sailor”, it’s underpinned by a drunken, disorientating piano melody (two actually in this case), and is backed by a live taped loop of a bottling machine factory, hissing and popping menacingly like a morbid backing vocal.

Regret” is up there with PJ Harvey’s “Rid of Me” with its horrified fury and guttural cry of ‘I ran out of white doves’ feathers to soak up the hot piss that comes from your mouth every time you address me’ and maybe the biggest surprise here is saved until last. “Hot Knife” (‘he’s a hot knife, I’m a pad of butter’) is a jazzed up, playful and almost overwhelming ode to physical desire with the tension being created by overlapping, giddy harmonies provided by Apple and her sister Maude Maggart. It’s an amazing, unexpected performance and a highlight of her career.

Little has been made of this release and Fiona Apple’s existence in this country and this album may actually be her most difficult, certainly following the relatively slick ‘Extraordinary Machine’.  But the melodies stick to the inside of your head like gum if you give them time (the rhythmically clinking, romantic “Anything We Want” being a perfect example) and you’ll also experience some of the most original, defiant music that you’ve heard in a while from a woman playing the piano; I really can’t think of anyone that comes close.

Contender for album of the year; magnificent.


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