I'm rarely blown away the first time I listen to an artist. Often, I need repeated listens to fully absorb the intricacies present in the work of the best songsmiths. Fiona Apple is a rare exception.
Despite being aware of her reputation as a prodigious talent, I wasn't compelled to take the plunge until her most recent album (The Idler Wheel) continued her streak of rapturous critical praise. I began with Extraordinary Machine, and instantly regretted my decision to ignore her in the years since its release. Captivated from start to finish, I was unable to escape the magnetic pull of her highly emotional songwriting. A Fiona Apple album is not a passive experience, it's an aural douse of cold water, immediately bringing you to attention. The Idler Wheel continues that tradition, making it abundantly clear that Fiona has not grown rusty during her seven year hiatus.
Just as good, if not better than Extraordinary Machine, The Idler Wheel is another stunner, an equally gut-wrenching and mesmerizing look into Apple’s damaged psyche. From the first song, Apple sounds like she’s on the verge of mental collapse. “Every single night’s a fight/with my brain,” she cries on “Every Single Night,” her voice echoing in an unnervingly triumphant manner. Despite the seemingly placid surface indicated by her hushed, music box-esque piano, something’s wrong with our narrator. Exactly what that is we will continue to explore over the course of the next nine songs.
The next track, “Daredevil”, peels back another layer of Fiona’s persona, as she reveals, “I don’t feel anything until I smash it up,” and pleads, “...don’t let me ruin me/I may need a chaperone.” The contrast between the skittering percussion and terse piano chords creates a nervous, unsettling mood while expertly illustrating the paradox between her self-destructive tendencies and her desperate attempts to keep her life from spinning out of control.
The highly confessional tone continues for the rest of the album’s duration, leaving the listener uncomfortably aware of Fiona’s faults. While many artists would lack the nerve to subject themselves to this type of emotional exposure, Apple shows no such hesitation, laying herself bare to be judged and scrutinized. Any songwriter can write about personal experiences, it takes true dedication to one’s craft to show what lies beneath the exterior, to divulge the thoughts most would be too embarrassed to reveal. This fearless ambition is what sets Fiona Apple apart from her contemporaries.
Perfectly mirroring her bare, revealing lyrics is the economical instrumentation. Where most artists would need ornate arrangements to convey such a bewildering web of emotions, Apple thrives with little more than a piano and her haunting voice. She’s clearly an expert on the keys, using them to brilliantly punctuate her thoughts. The piano is more than a mere instrument, it’s an extension of her soul. As for her voice, it may not be beautiful by conventional standards, but it’s more effective than that of the most glamorous pop starlets, burrowing into the deepest, darkest corners of your brain. It demands attention; it refuses to be ignored.
While I’m fully convinced she could make do with just a piano and her voice, the inventive percussion adds a welcome layer of dynamism, making the songs a bit more robust. From kettledrums to marimbas, Apple covers the full spectrum, setting each track apart from every other. The masterful interplay between her voice, piano and percussion reaches its apex on “Left Alone,” the record’s jazziest number, in which an off-tempo piano, upright bass, and jittery drum provide a downright sinister backdrop for Apple’s disconcertingly playful vocals. The idea of paradox in Apple’s life is explored once again, this time concerning her desire for love and companionship despite her antisocial behavior.
Fiona Apple does nothing half-way; it’s either all or nothing. While she may only make an album or two every decade, when she does, we’re almost guaranteed a towering testament to her artistic prowess. Hopefully, she won’t need seven more years to release another record, but if she does, we know it’ll be worth the wait.
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