Fiona Apple's 'Idler Wheel' gets you tapping and dreaming - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

Fiona Apple’s ‘Idler Wheel’ gets you tapping and dreaming

Theodore Roethke wrote in 1941’s Silence of “a noise within the brow” that “breaks upon my solitude … It is the unmelodic ring / Before the breaking of a string.” The author, who was diagnosed with manic-depression, ended his poem with a prediction: “What shakes my skull to disrepair / Shall never touch another ear.”

Roethke was wrong.

Fiona Apple, in her extraordinary new album The Idler Wheel, gives Roethke’s Silence voice. It’s a compulsive, frantic medley of invasive thoughts and obsessive rhythms – the “complement to rage,” in Roethke’s words, that persists in a “furious, dissembling din.” Apple may not have had Silence in mind as she developed her album, but both works draw from the same source: the noise of the unquiet mind.

The Idler Wheel leaves behind the polished, often orchestral sounds of Apple’s last two albums for a sparse arrangement: her voice, the piano and percussion. The new approach serves her well: percussionist and co-producer Charley Drayton always keeps the focus on Apple.

Sometimes that means playing against her, as in the arms race of driving drums, pounding chords and howling, virtuoso vocals of “Left Alone” and the militantly punctual staccato of “Daredevil”.

More often, Drayton steps back and creates a desolate, quietly unsound ambience in subliminal counterpoint. Here are the relentlessly, mechanically cyclical ticks and whirrs that give the album its name: an idler-wheel is the disc that passively transmits rotation from the motor of a phonograph to the turntable. “Jonathan” advances along an assembly line of drum brushes hissing like steam valves; “Regret,” against what could either be a typewriter or the gears of a grandfather clock. Sometimes the beats are barely even audible, as in the languid, heartbeat pulse of “Valentine” – or is that pulse just Apple on the piano peddles?

These are rhythms that you’ll drum against the steering wheel in a traffic jam – and tap on the table with your fingers – and then you’ll remember dreaming about them after a restless night. They’re inescapable; they maintain the “totally arbitrary, useless, destructive structure” Stanford neurologist Robert Sapolsky attributes to the involuntary music imagery of obsessive compulsive disorder. But there’s nothing accidental or random about Drayton’s work. He isn’t controlled by the effect; he’s creating it.

Critics frequently describe Apple’s performance on The Idler Wheel as dissonant, but this mischaracterizes much of the album. Some songs do have moments of dissonance, as in the broken carrousel tune of “Jonathan,” or in the playground noise that swells against the melody of “Werewolf.” More often she simply moves the melody in unexpected directions (such as the half-step climb of her first single, “Every Single Night”) or hits it from oblique angles (as in the minor lifts and major falls of “Valentine”). And sometimes she’s just shouting, as in the brutal chorus of “Regret” – an anthem angrier than anything the hard rock scene has put out in years.

This is new territory for Apple, but not entirely new. She became famous in 1997 with sultry pop like “Criminal” and delicate ballads like “Never Is A Promise.” Those sounds echo throughout her later albums; but the nervous energy that defines The Idler Wheel emerged as early as 1999. That year saw the release of When The Pawn’s hit “Fast As You Can” – a song she tellingly described to VH1 as “really just thoughts that were running through my head”.

Lyrically, Apple touches on many of the same themes as in her previous work – insecurity, self-destruction, and broken relationships – but her writing has matured.

She’s moved past her infatuation with arcane, word-of-the-day phrasing (no references to “a voice once stentorian” or “the folderal” in this album). Her prose has become disciplined, even economical. The questions are stark: “How can I ask anyone to love me,” she sings, “When all I do is beg to be left alone?” And the answers are often devastatingly direct: “We can still support each other / all we gotta do’s avoid each other.”

When Apple sings that “every single night’s a fight with my brain,” one does not suspect hyperbole.  The Idler Wheel isn’t an easy album – it’s a fight, written, as Roethke’s Silence would put it, “in accents measured by the blood.” The listener unfamiliar with that fight is likely to walk away from her new album disappointed. But anyone who recognizes themselves in the thoughts running through her head will appreciate the staggering artistic feat Fiona Apple has accomplished.

About the author

Jacob Fawcett is an editor at the Baltimore Post Examiner. Contact the author.

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