It’s taken Fiona Apple six years to get down the masterful anxiety of “The Idler Wheel…” The full title itself – “The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do” -- must’ve taken at least a couple of weeks and a few sleepless nights. The songwriter has proven over and over again to be both a slave and master to her own carefully selected words, with this current slate aching with the weight of sage, savage and self-effacing confessionals.
Good thing the arrangements never get in the way. In a year where Adele’s lush “21” still dominates the charts, Apple and multi-instrumentalist Charley Drayton produced these 10 tracks to sound like largely like two people sharing inside jokes with only musical toys and a moody upright at their disposal.
Take “Periphery,” for instance: the elementary piano line is answered by the instrument’s strings getting slapped, and a rhythm section consisting of what literally sounds like duct tape being ripped up from skin. “I don’t even really like you anymore at all,” Apple reveals childishly, bored and disappointed by her ex-lover’s bullsh*t. It’s all machinery and steam sounds in the intro to “Jonathan,” as she whirly-waltzes into Coney Island atop a tuneless mash of a piano pretending to be a calliope, skittering drums, screeches of “gulls” and her vocal counter-melody.
Featured, too, are some of the singer's finest vocal performances in her career. A few were unveiled in the weeks preceding the album’s release, like in war-crying “Every Single Night” and funny heartbreaker “Werewolf.” They're just teasers for more pressing and quixotic plot elements. Get into the guts of the thing and “Regret” pops out, or a her swing-dance version of “Revolution No. 9” (“Hot Knife”) sneaks up.
The jittery vibrato and broken howls on “Valentine” are closely recorded like a friend leaving you a pissy voicemail about a lousy date she had. “I stand no chance of growing up” she laments, but then puts the blame on “you you you you.” “Daredevil” shares the same slams, lacerations and tongue twisters, and puts them atop the sounds of thighs being slapped for percussion. “I may need a chaperone!” She laughs it off.
"The Idler Wheel's" thick language, overall, empties the listener: Apple’s all salt, and it can be terrifyingly sweet. Every song feels more valuable on repeat listens, even when she’s minimalistically and resolutely gloomy. Its efficiencies are balanced by its voluptuous neediness, a tax that you’ll be happy to shoulder.