If MP3s could wear or tear, my Fiona Apple discography would be a tattered mess of frayed notes and vocal riffs, cymbals shattered after one too many drumstick ricochets, and metaphors splayed about like pages ripped from an e. e. cummings chapbook. When I became acquainted with her soulful musings some years ago, a part of me wanted to group Fiona in the ranks of Alanis Morissette and Tori Amos — two female artists whose brazen confessions shaped my appreciation of music for years to come — but was clear upon first listen that Fiona was in a league all her own. I listened to her for months on end, from Tidal to When the Pawn Hits to Extraordinary Machine and back again, mulling over every lyric, rhyme, beat and blue note. And now, listening to her latest album, I feel invigorated as I once did — but also genuinely challenged.
Fiona’s latest release, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do, had been percolating for seven years since Extraordinary Machine came out in 2005. In true Fiona fashion, the lyrics — the poetry, I should say — is bitingly honest. Trademark elements shine through: stand-alone instruments are reminiscent of a one-woman show in lieu of a beefed-up Broadway spectacular. But old fans should note, diving into Idler Wheel headfirst: don’t expect the old, melodic sultriness of her other albums. There is not much in the way of melody here. If you come expecting explicit tunes, you will be shocked by the vastly untamed dissonance, savage amelodic vibratos that wax and wane over the clatter and clank of naked percussion.
Fiona’s emotions have always been palpable in her music, and Idler Wheel is at many points saturated with unbridled rage. “Regret” is an ever-building crescendo that never reaches its peak, with gusts of screams and banged piano keys: “I ran out of white dove feathers / To soak up the hot piss that comes through your mouth / Every time you address me.” “Every Single Night” is a perpetual taut vibrato, with intermittent battle cries on the last word of the line: “Every single night’s alright [or “a fight”] with my brain.” The music video for this single is haunting, with nightmarish images combined into a surreal montage featuring Fiona in a number of puzzling scenarios, including her wearing a squid as a headpiece and trapped in the embrace of a skeletal figure. “Hot Knife” really stands out on this album; in it, Fiona layers multiple vocalizations of the same lyric. The end result is a polyphony of Fionas chanting in piercing resonance.
Fiona’s latest live performances were some of the most visceral demonstrations of musicianship I’d ever seen. To appreciate her music to the full extent, I highly recommend this. She spouts words and music as heart-wrenchingly as one would bare physical chunks of one’s own soul. Makes sense, because that is apparently what she’s doing with her music.