Listening to a Fiona Apple album is a terrifying adventure. She's so visceral, so stark-honest, so passionate. Hearing her be so upfront about her emotional issues and life problems somehow has the effect of making you look inward at yourself and you usually dont like what you see. Fiona Apple gets to the core of your insecurities, so it's always a "Listen at Your Own Risk" endeavor.
Her newest album, The Idler Wheel... (the full title is much longer, a la Fiona Apple), is even more treacherous than past ones. Leading with the album's first single, "Every Single Night," Apple immediately descends into schizophrenia, fighting with her own mind and ultimately deciding that she just wants to feel everything, everything including all the horrible things as well. Apple continues to fight herself throughout the album, singing things like "Don't let me ruin me" ("Daredevil") and "Tears calcify in my tummy" ("Left Alone"). This in-fighting is all at once scary and exciting. You're listening with great caution and anticipation, knowing that Apple could fly off the handle at any moment. Still, one of the albums strongest qualities is how it refrains from freaking out until almost the very end.
That moment comes on "Regret" (you may be as surprised as I was that it took eight songs before there was one about misgiving), when Apple shrieks, "I ran out of white dove feathers/To soak up the hot piss that comes out of your mouth/Every time you address me." Um, whoa. The whole track is a vicious send-off of a former love, one in which Apple calls out her past flame for having mommy issues, among other things. And it's exhilarating to listen to. Like watching a car crash, or seeing someone trip. You want to look away, you want to pretend like you don't enjoy it -- but you do.
But The Idler Wheel... also succeeds in other ways, besides just being the musical embodiment of a train wreck. First of all, Apple ends the album by cleaning up the mess she made with two enchanting almost-love songs. More specifically they're about sex, but any time you can get Fiona Apple to sing fondly about affection you take it. It's also impressive that she can juxtapose "hot piss" and puppy love and make it seem normal.
Beneath all of this is some great music. Apple's virtuoso piano-playing that we all know is still apparent -- her knack for melodic melancholy is unmatched. Also excelling on this release are Apple's accompanying players. Charley Drayton's percussion stands out almost as much as Apple's piano, sometimes rolling through with alarming immediacy, other times being just involved enough to work. And on "Hot Knife" -- a song which ironically has hardly any percussion -- Apple's sister Maude Maggart does unbelievable harmony work, adding a unique extra layer to the song.
For a woman who clearly has the ability to produce the prettiest songs around, it's almost refreshing to see how unrepentant she is about adulterating her sound. Just look at how little and dainty her voice is on "Every Single Night" when she all of a sudden lets out a guttural yell, or her haunting wails on "Left Alone." There may not be a more appropriate line on the album than "Werewolf" -- "Nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key." As far as female pianists go, Fiona Apple is like devil's Nina Simone.
The Idler Wheel... reasserts that we don't have another pop singer like Fiona Apple. Someone who can be romantic and viciously brutal all at once; someone brave enough to broadcast her inner demons to the world; and someone who doesn't hesitate to get ugly once in awhile. It's been a long seven years between releases for Fiona Apple and while we hope the wait for her next album isn't as long, at the same time it might be a good thing, because listening to an album this devastating too often may be a little unhealthy.