Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel: Uneasy Listening

Bigger Than the Sound explores the depths of the willfully difficult, epically titled album, Apple's first in seven years.

Let’s just get this out of the way: Fiona Apple’s new album is called The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do. Yes, it is a comically long title. And yes, it is only further proof that she is crazy.

Neither of those things is actually important, mind you, which is why I won’t mention either of them again. And yet, they seem to be all people are focusing on in the lead-up to the album’s release June 19 — though I suspect that has more to do with the fact that most people haven’t heard it yet than it does any preconceived notions/biases folks may have about Apple herself (note: I am probably wrong about this). And here’s why:

The album is fantastic. It is a skeletal, searing thing, a collection of stripped-to-the-core songs that dig deep and then just keep on burrowing, moving forever away from the light. It is a psychological, almost pathological exploration of one’s desires and destructive tendencies — which, if the recent New York Times profile on her is correct, includes compulsively walking up a hill until her feet ached and her knees gave out on her. Sound like a fun listen? It’s not. Because it’s not supposed to be fun with Fiona Apple.

Unlike her last album (2005′s Extraordinary Machine), The Idler Wheel is by no means a pretty record, nor is it a particularly easy one to get through: Musically, it is brutally sparse, reflecting the years she’s spent in relative isolation (“I walk my dog at dawn because I don’t like people to be around,” she told the Times), and the songs often feature little more than Apple’s voice — which is still capable of airy trills but now also features a jarring, ragged edge — and doomy, claustrophobic piano chords, plus an accompaniment of percussive touches (drums, handclaps, machinery, etc.). It’s not a stretch to say there were more instruments employed on the title track of Machine than the entirety of Idler Wheel, though that less-is-more approach works to wearying effect: There is a tangible heft to each breath, each note. As is often the case with solitude, even the silences are weighty.

And lyrically, well, Apple is her usual vivisecting self, though for the first time, she seems willing to accept most of the blame. On opening track “Every Single Night,” she shouts “Every single night/ Is a fight with my brain,” and on the lacerating “Left Alone,” she whimpers “How can I ask anyone to love me/ When all I do is beg to be left alone?” She likens a lover to a werewolf for the way he’s devoured her, but admits she “provided a full moon,” prostrates herself at the feet of her (former) flame, author Jonathan Ames, and, above all else, punishes herself mercilessly: On the standout track “Valentine,” she sings “While you were watching someone else/ I stared at you and cut myself,” and things never really get much cheerier than that.

So, why, you might ask, would you ever want to listen to an album so sonically austere and lyrically self-loathing? Well, mostly because these kinds of records just don’t come around all that often. In a lot of ways — its stark arrangements, sonic dissonance and psychological scope — it recalls Patti Smith’s epochal Horses album, and while it’s certainly not as important (at least not yet, if ever), it’s equally as bracing. And much like Smith’s debut, it’s an endeavor in every sense of the word. But sometimes these things have to be that way. The best stuff is usually also the most difficult.

The Idler Wheel represents Fiona Apple casting a light on the past few years of her life, all the dark places she’s been and all the deep expanses she’s found within herself. And in a move as masochistic as it is marvelous, she makes every effort to drag the listener through it all. It’s almost as if she made it as an endurance test of sorts — with each crashing, cross-hatched piano stroke and every guttural wail, she seems to be saying, “If I made it through all this tumult, you can certainly make it through this album.” Some of her fans will be up to the task, others will not; you get the feeling neither outcome is really all that important to Apple. The simple fact that the album exists is enough for her. And it should be enough for you, too, especially if you love music that challenges and cuts. After all, sometimes love hurts. But the pain is worth it.

What are you expecting from Apple’s new album? Let us know in the comments.