Fiona Apple's ‘Idler Wheel': Musical thrills in a minor key

Fiona Apple, who will perform this month at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby, tempers her musical tales of woe with a wry attitude. JACK PLUNKETT / Associated Press
Fiona Apple, who will perform this month at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby, tempers her musical tales of woe with a wry attitude. JACK PLUNKETT / Associated Press
Posted: June 18, 2012

‘That's where the pain comes in, like a second skeleton,” Fiona Apple sings on "Every Single Night," from her fourth album and her first in seven years, whose full title is The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do.

With Apple's music, the pain comes in early and often, along with the anxiety, neuroses, and — even better — the survival skills and talent that allow the 34-year-old piano player and songwriter to not only cope but thrive amid self-imposed duress.

The key lyric in the jittery "Every Single Night," the lead track on the consistently excellent The Idler Wheel (Epic *** 1/2), which comes out Tuesday, would seem to be "Every single night's a fight in my brain," which she sings while stretching out the final word into multiple syllables.

Those words surely qualify as music to the ears of Apple's fans, who have been privy to the often tortured and tortuous dispatches from her emotional life issued since she emerged as a teenage songwriting prodigy with her 1996 debut album, Tidal.

If Apple is still hard at work fighting with her brain, chances are that her drawn-out creative process will result in songs that are rich with conflict and never the slightest bit predictable or palliative. (The seven-year gap since 2005's Extraordinary Machine is only slightly longer than the break between that superb collection and its equally good predecessor, 1999's When the Pawn …, whose full title contains more than four times as many words as The Idler Wheel….)

But while The Idler Wheel never qualifies as easy listening — uneasy listening is more like it — it's not so much the tale of woe that it first might appear. That's clear even by the end of "Every Single Night," in which Apple, who plays the Tower Theater in Upper Darby on June 27, alters the chorus the third time so that she's singing, "Every single night's alright," letting the listener know that, up to a point anyway, she's actually quite comfortable living with a sense of discomfort.

And why is that? Because living a life of rawboned dedication to making art, and opening yourself up to experience in order to feel fully alive and stimulated, can come at an emotional cost. Or, as she puts it in the repeated coda to "Every Single Night" — whose video finds Apple, whose sense of humor is often overlooked, wearing a rubber octopus as a hat — "I just want to fee-eee-eeel everything."

The song that follows "Every Single Night," is the spare, typically percussive, equally captivating "Daredevil." It suggests that "I must be a daredevil/I can't feel anything until I smash it up." And Apple whimsically accepts at least half of the responsibility for a relationship doomed for destruction in "Werewolf," in which she equitably reasons, "I could liken you to a werewolf the way you left me for dead/But I admit that I provided a full moon." Later, she concludes: "We could still support each other, as long as we avoid each other/Nothing wrong with a song that ends in a minor key."

The Idler Wheel, produced with drummer and multi-instrumentalist Charley Drayton, is full of songs that fight an internal tug-of-war between beauty and strife, and naturally it is, in part, a breakup album. At least one song, "Jonathan," is about an ex-boyfriend, the novelist and creator of the HBO series Bored to Death, Jonathan Ames.

It's by no means unremittingly depressing, however. That's partly because some of the songs, like the percolating examination of desire "Hot Knife," aren't a bummer at all. And it's partly because of the wry attitude Apple often takes regarding her despair. "I went to work to cultivate a callus," she sings on the jazzy, improvisatory "Left Alone," in which she also sings: "How can I ask anyone to love me, when all I do is beg to be left alone?"

And it's also because nothing as thrilling and as spirited musically as The Idler Wheel could qualify as a downer even if, as Apple sings, the heartbreak surrounding it "hurt more than it should hurt." Music this painfully good just doesn't come around that often.

Contact Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or deluca@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @delucadan. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at www.philly.com/inthemix.

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