The Good: Moments of voice, One or two stray lyrics
The Bad: Utterly indistinct track to track, Musical experiments that fail, Bonus DVD is a huge letdown, Musically unimaginative
The Basics: The Idler Wheel might have a delightfully long title, but it glosses over a shocking lack of substance and growth for Fiona Apple.
I am a big fan of both long album titles and Fiona Apple. So, when she finally released her new album, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do, I was encouraged to spend money on new music for the first time in a long time. In fact, the moment I learned it existed, I became determined to get the deluxe version of The Idler Wheel (as it is commonly abbreviated). So, I did and when it arrived in its notebook packaged, I was still very excited.
I am fairly sure that Fiona Apple has not let me down before like this, but with The Idler Wheel it is very hard not to feel utterly disappointed, especially with the “deluxe” version. The Idler Wheel, in short, is the least distinct album of Fiona Apple’s. For sure, we have had years with her other three albums and assorted singles, but even on the first listen of her other albums, there were tracks that stood out, that would not be denied and forced the listener to fall in love with them or acknowledge their greatness. On The Idler Wheel there are no such tracks.
To be clear, I am a fan of Fiona Apple’s works and I suspect that (despite being a little afraid of how thin she is in the footage on the DVD) I might enjoy seeing her live. At least, I might have, before The Idler Wheel. The deluxe version of The Idler Wheel includes a DVD (no bonus musical tracks) that features five tracks performed at a music festival. That footage revealed a stage presence for Fiona Apple that is . . . just ghastly. She performs on the bonus DVD with so little energy or enthusiasm or sense of engagement with the audience that the drummer and bass players draw the eye more. They at least look like they are having fun or are affected by the music; Apple looks like she’s struggling to remember her own lines (which is pretty bad on “Sleep To Dream!”).
To be fair to Fiona Apple, the crowd at the music festival at which she was performing on the DVD looked (and more importantly, sounded) particularly subdued. I suppose it would be hard to perform in an energetic way or way that made you want to connect with the audience if they are simply standing there looking bored. The counter to that, of course, is that maybe that would not be the bonus footage one releases with their new album (i.e. pick a performance where you clearly rocked and your audience responded that way).
Back to the album. Fiona Apple had snuck into my pantheon of artists whose works I would buy without actually listening to the album. Usually, I only keep four artists in my pantheon with that status, but Apple snuck in when I wasn’t looking. Now that I am, The Idler Wheel reminds me too firmly why I have that standard. The Idler Wheel sinks largely because it lacks distinction. The tracks flow one into another in a way with such close musical and vocal performances as to make it such that, as one listens to the album on repeat over and over again, the tracks blend together without any clear moments that stand out. That is not entirely true, though, but the distinct moment on the album does not help The Idler Wheel. The first track on The Idler Wheel does feature something different that we haven’t heard from Fiona Apple before, a series of long notes that Apple holds, but punctuates (glottal stops, perhaps?) with drastic and dramatic note changes. Unfortunately, while she is trying something new here, the result is just not good. It sounds like one might expect a person singing through a torture session might objectively sound like.
In some ways, it is a relief that the album sinks into mediocrity after the failed attempt at a new and different sound. Still, for $14.99, I’d like something good.
With only ten tracks occupying 42:39 on the c.d., The Idler Wheel is, at best, an anemic endeavor that leaves those who waited years for the new Fiona Apple album understandably underwhelmed. As with her prior endeavors, The Idler Wheel is distinctly the work of Fiona Apple. Apple wrote all of the songs and provides the lead vocals on each track. In the deluxe version, Apple is not clearly credited with playing any instruments on the album and she is not credited with producing the album either.
On the instrumental front, this is very much what one expects from a Fiona Apple album. Piano, bass, and percussion driven, all of the instruments take the back seat to the vocals. On The Idler Wheel there are no musical moments that stand out from the instrumental accompaniment. There are no distinct, hummable tunes on The Idler Wheel and it is unsurprising to me that I haven’t heard a single from the album before now. All of the instrumental accompaniment is that; muted, subtle support to the vocalist. The music on this album never shines, stands out, or becomes otherwise distinctive (on the DVD this is accented when one hears “Fast As You Can” and “Sleep To Dream” alongside three of the tracks from The Idler Wheel!).
Vocally, The Idler Wheel falls well within the range of what Fiona Apple has presented on her three prior albums. The two exceptions are the vocal skips and leaps in “Every Single Night” and a strong sense of vocal strain in “Regret.” “Regret’s” use of Apple singing scratchier pounds home the song’s theme and it works. What works as well is the strong accompaniment in “Hot Knife,” which gives the song an almost a capella sound and feel. Beyond that, Fiona Apple presents the other songs with exceptional range, decent clarity and little variation between the tracks.
Lyrically, The Idler Wheel is short on great lines. That is not to say that it’s all bad; there is just less in the way of poetics than Fiona Apple fans might expect and (reasonably) demand. The distinctive lines come in “Left Alone” when Apple sings “I don’t cry when I’m sad anymore, no, no. / Tears calcify in my tummy / Fears coincide with the tow / How can I ask anyone to love me / When all I do is beg to be left alone.” And it is appropriately heartwrenching.
The imagery in “Werewolf” is decent as well and when “Periphery” opens with the lines “Oh, the periphery / They throw good parties there / Those peripheral idiots / Always have a bite to bear” it is hard not to acknowledge it as clever. But even the most clever and imaginative lines in “Anything We Want” get jumbled and eventually buried by an unfortunately droned refrain. In that song, Apple ventures into musical storytelling with results that are initially good – “My cheeks were / reflecting the longest wavelengths” (“Anything We Want,” which we get is red and that is undeniably a beautiful way of stating it) – but then become convoluted in time travel (pretending the musical protagonist and her lover are eight years old), somewhat ridiculous allusions (UFC, really?! Is there a huge UFC/Fiona Apple fanbase crossover?!), and then leaps abruptly to sexual acts. Very little transition to playing children and outright sex . . . didn’t work for me.
Ultimately, The Idler Wheel just does not feel like Fiona Apple had something clear or compelling to say. While that has never been an issue for her before, it becomes the unstoppable reality that sinks The Idler Wheel.
For other Fiona Apple works, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Across The Universe (single)
When The Pawn . . .
For other music reviews, be sure to check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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