By Russell Warfield
Already, one of the most-quoted lines from Fiona Apple‘s first new record in seven years is the succinctly put “I just want to feel everything”, taken from the album’s opening track and first single ‘Every Single Night’. It’s widely quoted for good reason, being a pitch perfect introduction to and encapsulation of the absolutely fantastic The Idler Wheel… – a collection of sparse, loose and thrillingly alive songs built on Apple’s multifaceted explorations of herself and her relationships. Keeping instrumentation and production flourishes stripped to a minimum – these tracks being backed by little more than deceptively tossed-off piano lines and restrained percussion – what gets centre-staged are the tremendous songs, and of course Apple herself: her lyrics, her melodies and her unparalleled performances.
Lyrically, these songs are ruminations of self-examination and investigations into the ruins of passionate relationships, but Apple’s approaches to the subject differ wildly from song to song. With ‘Regret’, we get unbridled spite and bitterness (“I ran out of white dove feathers to soak up the hot piss which comes out of your mouth”); ‘Periphery’ dials it back a little with a more balanced and clear eyed “I don’t appreciate people who don’t appreciate… You let me down. I don’t even like you any more at all”. ‘Left Alone’ is plagued with self doubt (“How can I ask anyone to love me when all I do is beg to be left alone?”), while ‘Valentine’ gives itself over to the old emotions (“I root for you – I love you”).
But this vast gauntlet of feelings and emotional responses to the same experience are successfully tied together into a cohesive artistic and psychoanalytic snapshot by the live-sounding, consistent production – the vast disparity between ‘Regret’ and ‘Valentine’ being purely lyrical, not musical. Just listen to her howl that vocal take. It’s Fiona Apple who’s angry, not her song – and what’s more, she’s perfectly capable of conveying these seismic shifts in feeling without a jot of reliance on her producer or her instrumentation.
Apple is a powerhouse of a performer and vocalist, offering a multi angled insight into individual experience as identifiable as it is personal. Her range is stunning – vulnerable, confident, confused and assured – little flourishes and sustained delivery combining to create a far more surprising and invigorating album than any densely packed and pseudo-progressive approach to production could ever hope to achieve. Just hear Apple let the flood gates open during ‘Daredevil’ – shifting suddenly from sweet-natured crooning to ragged desperation like a light switch: “Look at, look at, look at ME!”.
Even details as tiny and seemingly inconsequential as the little crack of her voice on the word “you” in ‘Valentine’ perfectly convey the heart-caught-in-the-throat moment of a stray thought of your lover catching you off-guard. Throughout, there’s the constant feel of this being a spontaneously captured one-take recording of naked emotion, but one which is enhanced by the seemingly limitless ability of a performer more than capable of rising to the occasion without support. She’s drained the recording of instrumentation and filled it with herself – a move which might normally cast an unwelcome spotlight on the cracks in an artist’s unmasked performance, but a move which was no risk at all for the incomparable Fiona Apple.