"This world is bulls**t" Fiona Apple boldly declared on the MTV stage at the precocious age of 17. While most artists in this age group are still struggling to find their voice, Apple chose every word with unwavering bravado. In a minute's time, she lambasted any preconceived notions of cool, quoted chapter and verse from Maya Angelou, and wondered why she was even in this world. It was akin to Kanye West's "gaffe" almost a decade later, a tidbit of truth that seen by most as pretentious. At the time, Apple was an artist with unbridled talent, showing up in the "Criminal" video as a tiny temptress with the world in the palm of her hand. Apple parlayed the provocative video into a '98 Grammy win and a solid follow-up in When the Pawn..., then the weight of it all became to much for Apple and she collapsed under the pressure.
Apple resurfaced five years later with the baroque Extraordinary Machine, managing to court controversy once more when the album's production changed hands. She took it on tour and then sunk right back into the ether. In the time between Machine's 2005 release date and The Idler Wheel, the indie landscape has been invariably altered. Brutal honesty is no longer the exception but the rule. This year alone has seen stiff competition from the female side of the realm, with Lana Del Rey soberly singing of a lost prostitute and Best Coast's Bethany Cosentino longing to see a love "forever and ever." Apple's once remote island has been found-out and endlessly mined. But as always Apple has kept the treasure for herself.
One of the benefits of being gone for so-long, is that Apple has no pressure to sound like anyone but herself and it shows on the resplendent Idler Wheel. Apple has stripped her sound down to the bare essentials; drums and piano are the record's most welcome visitors. The minimalism of these tracks only serve to underscore the abject nature found throughout much of this album's 42 minutes. The opening chords of "Every Single Night" confer a state of childlike joy, but Apple soon becomes locked in a nightly fight she can never win and the whimsy is gone.
"Every Single Night"
With the pitter-patter of feet and a jarring piano strike on "Daredevil," Apple's internal fight, becomes a full-blown war, as she demands "look at, look at, look at me." Struggling to finish the phrase, its clear Apple's mismatched in the game of love. For her the deck was stacked long ago.
Unrequited love can be one of the most oppressive feelings in existence, and is no stranger to the world of rock. Eric Clapton masterfully conveyed it on "Layla" and the Seeds were at their wits end with it on the pitiable "Can't Seem to Make You Mine." On "Valentine" Apple bears the full-burden of this love, as a thumping drum becomes a beating heart; one soon ripped out and thrown to the floor. Apple's love-letter is never opened, so she pantomimes and in a mordant cry for recognition turns to self-mutilation. In all of this her love is none the wiser, constantly keeping her just out of reach.
Apple finds moments of contentment on "Jonathan" as she peers into the past and recalls a ride to Coney Island with the title character. Moments of silence are sweltering for some on the dating scene, but she embraces it, "I don't want to talk about anything."
Though Apple is comfortable on "Jonathan," she's wiser than her 34 years could ever suggest on "Werewolf," the album's centerpiece. When you're in the heat of the moment, a dual perspective is preposterous, the most worthless recompense that could ever exist. Apple's moment of clarity comes over a jaunty piano and wispy drum-strokes. "I could liken you to a werewolf the way you left me for dead, but I admit I provided a full-moon," she sings, seeing the other side of the coin for the first time. Apple adapts the mantra of "nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key," a furtive foreshadowing of the song's conclusion which comes with the cackle of kids. These lost children playfully carry Apple away to a time when introspection was an alien word.
One simple look at the album artwork Apple crafted herself and we can see this is an intensely personal record. The cover conveys the yin-yang of Apple's brain, a place where passion and pain incessantly circle one another. This is an album about the unbridled emotions that accompany us on our journey through the hills and valleys of love. In another way, its about the childishness of it all. Though an unwelcome idea, it seems almost silly to search for "our one true love" a quest so lofty it can never truly be completed, its a task only a child could go racing after. That youthfulness is in full-force on "Anything We Want," a smorgasbord of sound that could pass as a bastard child of Tom Waits' Rain Dogs. "Started off sipping water, and now we try to swallow the wave," while Apple is being weaned on the ways of love, she still tries to bite off more than she can chew.
Apple poses a pivotal question on "Left Alone," finding no immediate answer. "How can I ask anyone to love me, when all I do is beg to be left alone?" Even for the autobiographical Apple, its a startling moment of honesty. Outside of her journalistic screeds, Apple is in top vocal-form on the track, turning in her most stellar performance of the whole record. She seamlessly speeds up and slows down the music, rhapsodically "rapping" at points and obliterating any notion of a steady rhythm. The careening drums accentuate Apple's utter abandonment, chasing her to the song's conclusion.
Little more than a month ago, I was singing the praises of lo-fi folkie Willis Earl Beal's mesmerizing record Acousmatic Sorcery. I resolutely declared it the "strongest album to released so far this year," but truthfully it was a far-flung notion that any album released the rest of the year could top it. I now know how wrong I was. Like Acousmatic, Idler Wheel is an album that reveals itself with one track at a time. A diary set to music, personal in nature with little concern for outside influences. While Beal, woke to find his "silent lover" was only a dream, Apple hasn't been to bed in years. Just when Apple begins to grow comfortable in her own skin and longs to be kissed, she realizes she's all alone, she's gotten her wish in the worst way possible.