REVIEW: Fiona Apple’s “The Idler Wheel…”

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Every single night, I endure the flight of little wings of white-flamed butterflies in my brain.

That's the first line of the first song on Fiona Apple's new release (get ready for the title), The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do.

For the next 43 minutes, the listener gets to take a trip into Apple's brain and what a trip it is.

That song, "Every Single Night" is the first single and the video from the album (yes, that is a squid on her head).

It's been 16 years since the somewhat-controversial video for "Criminal," Apple's first single, was played ad nauseum on MTV. Her debut album Tidal went triple-platinum, selling nearly three million units and garnering her a Grammy for Best New Artist.

"Every Single Night" won't be a Top 40 hit, but she obviously doesn't care about that. Apple releases albums so infrequently that every one–and this is just the fourth–is an event of sorts.

Her last effort, Extraordinary Machine (2005), was surrounded with music industry politics, hearsay, rumors and fan protests when her longtime producer was replaced and the entire project was re-recorded. 

This time out, the turmoil and melodrama are all in the music and lyrics. It's not an easy listen.

It's a cliché to say that repeated listens are required to fully understand some albums, but after the third time through The Idler Wheel…, headphones on and gazing at the original drawings and handwritten lyric sheet, it felt like I was trying too hard to "get" it.

It's doubtful you'll be humming the tunes to yourself while walking down the street. You probably won't want to put the kids to bed with this, either. 

However, it's an interesting, challenging, sometimes off-putting, mostly satisfying and sometimes strikingly brilliant piece of work. There are some songs that I'll probably never play again and some that are incredibly intriguing.

Apple has always been an original; one of those artists that you can recognize in two notes. She's also an artist that not everyone "gets." PJ Harvey, Kate Bush and Bjork occupy a similar terrain in the pop music world.

There has been much critical buzz surrounding Idler Wheel… Some of the hype has to do with the fact that this is her first album in seven years and that it was recorded in secret years ago.

Randall Roberts wrote on the L.A. Times music blog that this is "Essential 2012 listening for anyone interested in popular music as art." The entertainment website Metacritic, which compiles critical reviews from major publications, gave the album a 90 out of 100. Not one out of the twenty-six reviews was negative.

Apple appeared recently on the cover of Billboard magazine with the quote "I'm fine if people don't like my music because I know I'm right." There is certain confidence in her work that is immediately evident on all her recordings. 

She co-produced the project with her longtime drummer Charley Drayton to good effect. The arrangements are spare and quirky, alternating space and noise, beauty and distortion.

The performances are essentially duets with some added loops and overdubs, but with a very live, open and airy feel. Drayton's contributions, whether it's behind the drums, slapping his thighs or banging on pots and pans, is anything but conventional.

The use of found sounds and field recordings is also prevalent throughout the album. Apple's approach to songwriting is very pianistic. While most pop and rock albums seem to be composed by guitar players, she is firmly rooted in the tradition of earlier composers from the jazz school, Tin Pan Alley and the Brill building.

Apple is a fine piano player, but her playing, along with the percussion platform, are subordinate to the highlighted instrument that is her voice. The songs and lyrics are what matters to her, and her voice is what delivers the message.