Fiona Apple isn't your average singer-songwriter. Her third album Extraordinary Machine was released in 2005, seven years ago. She released her sophomore album six years prior and her debut album a further three years earlier. Apple doesn't boast a constant discography unlike her contemporary counterpart, Cat Power. Quality over content is Apple's reason for this. She believes in releasing appropriately, rather than putting an album out for the fun of it like many artists do. Apple unexpectedly revealed this album to her major record label Epic earlier in the year - her fourth release in 16 years.
Apple opted to work with her touring drummer Charley Drayton instead of her long-term collaborator Jon Brion. She also took the recording of the album under control with predominately Drayton and her performing. This results in a new found sound, one which Apple has never quite pinned down in the past. "Every Single Night" opens the album with minimalistic instrumentation. Apple sings from the heart, with passion and honesty: "The rib is the shell. And a heart is the yolk. And I just made a meal for us both to choke on." Apple's lyricism tells the story of a relationship with imagery that refers to body parts and the body as a whole. She adds: "Every single night it's a fight, with my brain," highlighting her sleeping problems.
Unrequited love is a common theme in Apple's work with "Valentine" being the pinnacle of The Idler Wheel. She first sings: "You didn't see my valentine. I sent it via pantomime. While you were watching someone else." She later attempts to move on from her relationship: "I made it to a dinner date. My teardrops seasoned every plate. I tried to dance but lost my nerve. I cramped up in the learning curve." The piano adds character to Valentine's harsh unrequited love theme. Apple reprises the themes from her previous album Extraordinary Machine. "Daredevil" is a dark and twisted track about Apple's self-loathing and attempts of being noticed. Her vocal is stunning as she caresses the listener on the verse, then strikes with the track's hook: "And don't let me, ruin me. I may need a chaperone."
"Jonathan" is a track about her relationship with writer Jonathan Ames. It's pretty self-explanatory and furthers the listener’s insight into Apple's recent personal life and relationships. Likewise, "Left Alone" explains the deeply traumatic and secretive side to Apple's life. She sings: "How can I ask anyone to love me When all I do is beg to be left alone?" The Idler Wheel has themes of confusion and paradox situations such as this. Apple's vocal is spectacular on the hook here. She sings with conviction and ease as she explains her feelings of desire.
Even without the killer hooks and the layers of baroque pop instrumentation, The Idler Wheel proves to be an effective singer-songwriter album - one of Apple's best to date. "Regret" is powerful and personal, like many of Apple's love songs. It's about unrequited love with focus on a man who turned Apple into a cynic through his behaviour, making her regret their relationship: "'Member when I was so s k and you didn't believe me? Then you got sick too and guess who took care of you? You hated that, didn't you? Didn't you?" Apple uses analogies as an almighty tool in lyricism. "Werewolf" is my favourite track on the album and it's because of Apple's choice of words. The light instrumental adds flavour and taste to the track's sophistication. And it's the instrumentation that could be seen as a flaw to some, however I hear the piano and the light percussion as an Anthony & The Johnsons-esque, Cat Power bequest.
"Periphery" is one of the saddest tracks on The Idler Wheel due to Apple's outsider views. Another relationship lost due to unrequited love, she sings: "Cause I don't appreciate. People who. Don't appreciate." Her vocal experiments with volume and layers to the final moment of the track where the percussion comes together with the outstanding piano riff. In sharp contrast to the albums negativity, "Anything We Want" takes the listener to a positive place in Apple's mind. The theme of unrequited love is absent, because what Apple wanted from the relationship becomes true. It's full of imaginative lyrics and there’s plenty of realism involved.
The album ends with the seductive "Hot Knife". Apple remarks about a possible successful relationship where she's as happy as her male counterpart. Apple sings: "I get feisty whenever I'm with him," Arguably the most positive lyric on the album. It ends with a sexual innuendo, "Maybe you could teach me something. Maybe I could teach you too." There's a clear contrast between happy and sad moments on The Idler Wheel. Apple has quite clearly positioned the two positive tracks at the end of the album, for effect and to dramatise the early negative tracks.
Yes, this is an eccentric album with both Apple's furious piano and Drayton's charismatic percussion standing out alongside Apple's very own contralto vocal range. She's using The Idler Wheel as a weapon. She uses her powerful voice effectively, hanging the listener on every word: "All I do is begged to be loved," / "I’m a tulip in a cup. I stand no chance of growing up." It's different to her older work, she's both bolder and stronger. Minimalism does create a bit of a backlash because of the inefficient hooks, however four/five tracks on this album are incredible.