Open books and enigmas are, by definition, mutually exclusive. Yet this seemingly waterproof rule doesn’t apply to Fiona Apple, an artist whose career is defined as much by mystery and eccentricities as it is by an unapologetic predisposition to complete and unfiltered honesty. The intervals between her albums seem to progressively grow longer, her last album, Extraordinary Machine, having been released seven years ago (and predecessor When the Pawn… six years before that). And in the aftermath of that album’s scrapped, Jon Brion-produced first version and subsequent online debates over the superior product, Apple took to recording its follow up without fanfare or publicity, and without even notifying her label. Yet for the amount of Apple’s life that’s kept in quiet, she’s never been anything but completely candid — a recent interview with Pitchfork for example, found her addressing intimate details of relationships, thoughts about death and even a heartbreaking story about her dog.
As a songwriter, Apple’s honesty is one of her greatest assets. She’s never been one to hold much back, but as she’s matured in the 16 years since her debut album Tidal, she’s become a lot more playful with her confessions, transforming what may have been unfortunate true stories into elegantly and entertainingly spun narratives delivered with impeccable rhythm and timing. The more stripped-down sound of her new album, the exhaustingly titled The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do, feels less like the big studio productions she’s released in the past, and more like her periodic performances at Los Angeles’ Largo. Apple thrives on that intimacy, and with fewer big arrangements to crowd out her melodies, her songs sound warmer and stronger than ever.
Now 34 years old, and 16 years removed from the unusually mature 19-year-old performer of Tidal, Apple appears to be just as troubled, flawed and fraught with self-doubt as ever. But on The Idler Wheel, the first album to be released in her 30s, Apple sounds more at ease with her problems, showing off each bruise and scar with good humor and whimsy. Nowhere is her torment displayed as colorfully and jauntily as it is on opener “Every Single Night,” in which her pain is “like a second skeleton/trying to fit beneath the skin” and her ribcage turns to a poisonous breakfast. Its video, likewise, showcases a sillier Apple than we’re used to, performing most of the song with a squid on her head. On “Daredevil” she pleads, “Don’t let me ruin me/ I think I need a chaperone.” And she reaches an uncomfortable conclusion in “Left Alone,” positing, “How can I ask anyone to love me/ when all I do is beg to be left alone?”
The more starkly arranged style of The Idler Wheel might initially seem to draw a more intense light on Apple’s personal journals, yet the openness of it allows her free rein to explore a more innovative and fanciful approach. Rather than sticking to the smoky deep register for which she first became famous, Apple’s voice undergoes some daring feats of vocal gymnastics in songs like “Left Alone,” in a single measure climbing steadily to higher octaves. Yet on “Regret” she affects a much harsher climactic moan, as sputtering electronic beats loop underneath. Percussion from a bottle factory takes over on “Anything We Want,” and on the gorgeously old-timey “Hot Knife,” Apple harmonizes with her sister, Maude Maggart in a bluesy, sultry closing ceremony.
As much as Apple remains the immensely talented, eccentric and sometimes reclusive artist for which she’s been characterized for more than a decade, the long periods of quiet she keeps present each album as almost a reintroduction to her music. In six or seven years, a person can go through a lot, and in funneling those experiences and periods of growth into her songs, Apple is, invariably, somewhat different each time. On The Idler Wheel, Apple stays true to her own clever, ornate songwriting style and deeply earnest lyrics, but never has she sounded so natural and relaxed. Now that ever last barrier has fallen, not everything that comes out is comfortable or easy to be hear, but her method of delivery has never sounded better.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.