Review: Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do

I came into this album blind, with no prior knowledge about Apple’s persona or previous output. And what a joyous surprise it turned out to be! The Idler Wheel… is intelligent, unique, difficult, rewarding and the best album of the year so far.

The style of the music is a minimal mesh of piano stabs and sparse percussion with Apple’s vocals high in the mix. This inevitably focuses one’s attention on her lyrics, which are presumably quite divisive due to their teenage angst-y rawness and introspection. I find them very moving, honest and poetic myself; her command of language and delivery illustrated in lines such as: “I’m amorous and out of reach, A still life drawing of a peach” from Valentine. There’s an endearing alliteration and rhythm to “I went to work to cultivate a callous” from Left Alone, and Werewolf is a whole song built around memorable similes such as “I could liken you to a shark the way you bit off my head”. The well-crafted songs are full of these quotable moments that linger in the memory, and further listens always yield more to appreciate.

A great album needs more than striking lyrics however and The Idler Wheel… doesn’t disappoint in other areas. The drumming in the album is fantastic, spurning traditional beats for a jazzier, scattered, syncopated feel. Apple similarly spurns the tradition of big singalongs by piano-based songwriters (like the fluff of Regina Spektor) in exchange for a more challenging listen. She has too many great ideas to stick to formulaic song writing methods but the enjoyable melodies and poppy resolutions are there to satisfy more patient listeners.

Some might complain that The Idler Wheel… is stuck in one gear: one idea stretched out over a whole album that drags after a while. The aesthetic of the album works so well however that the style shouldn’t grate on the listener. This album feels like a pure distillation of Apple’s talent, and such starkness is refreshing when contrasted with the current indie trend of obscuring songs beneath a haze of synths, beats, auto-tune, distortion or whatever.

The literacy and difficulty of Apple’s music might put off some people who are wary of self-indulgence or esotericism, but this is simply a great record regardless of one’s prejudices. I personally squirm a little when people talk about “rawness” or “honesty” in song writing for example, since it can shift the focus away from the quality of the music and result in melodramatic over-idolisation. It’s not a problem here however since The Idler Wheel… is musically superb: its lyrical depth, melodic quality, fun vocal quirks and delicate percussion combining together perfectly in a subtly beautiful album.

Words: Joe Fuller