True, you won’t be surprised to hear that The Idler Wheel…, the latest record from Fiona Apple, is a deeply personal record about heartbreak and loss. Heartbreak and loss have been, after all, her stock and trade over her previous three albums and her nearly 20-year career. This record is not, however, just another Fiona Apple album. It’s not only a vast improvement upon its predecessor, 2005’s Extraordinary Machine, but it also pushes the lovelorn ground she’s already covered further. Apple’s not dipping back into the same well. She’s refining her outlook here, and The Idler Wheel… stands as her most concentrated and mature record yet.
The album begins with the plinking, spacey opener “Every Single Night,” which finds Apple sprawling through verbose lines, ultimately asserting that “who I turned out to be has got to be somebody else’s fault.” She fights her way through the song, gritting her teeth on her own words, trying to convince us that she bears no responsibility. Similarly, “Daredevil” finds her pleading that we help her narrator. “Don’t let me ruin me,” she begs over low, clanging piano notes. There’s no accountability, of course, but it’s also in hindsight. Apple isn’t excusing this, she’s setting things up.
Things turn abruptly on “Valentine.” With our narrator begging to be let off the hook, we then see the “you” that has caused all the damage and a can’t-let-go bitterness that works its way in. “I root for you,” Apple seethes. “I love you. You, you, you, you.” Again, it may be another jilted lover tale — things get more personal on “Jonathan,” no doubt a reference to Apple’s real-life ex Jonathan Ames — but it also echoes backward. Whoever that narrator is pining for, Apple isn’t sympathizing. Instead we just see someone who has turned away from an “I” in denial to focus on a long-gone “you.”
The middle of the record focuses on these toxic relationships, but there is no playing the victim here. In “Werewolf,” the ex-lover is the title character, the narrator “provided the full moon.” Perhaps no song crystallizes this point better than “Left Alone.” Apple groans out a question that has no answer when she keeps saying “How can I expect someone to love me, when all I do is beg to be left?” Early in the song, she admits “I’m hard, too hard to know.” This is equal parts admission and excuse, since she places at least partial blame on past relationships. But as these truths leak out, the album shifts from the bitterness of the middle of the record to something close to hope and something free. “Anything We Want” captures the discovery of innocent love, the ideal, perfectly, and it’s the only song that’s focuses on a joined-up “we.” The final song, “Hot Knife” finds Apple getting her swagger back a bit. She’s the knife here, and the next guy, whoever he is, dude is just a pad of butter.
It’s telling, though, that there are other singers that help her with that refrain, that make her sound like more than just herself. Where The Idler Wheel… truly splits from the other records is sonically. If the previous albums were about dramatizing and amping up heartbreak, about projecting it into the world, The Idler Wheel… shows how, as you age, that same big heartbreak, the wailing and teeth-gnashing, gets isolating. Everthing here sounds close to the bone. The piano rings out solitary sets of notes far more often than lush chords here, and nothing gets grand the way her other records did. Just shuffled snares and toms, a few small flourishes, and little else. The big instrument here is Apple’s voice, sometimes screaming with fury (“Daredevil” and “Regret”), other times sweetly hopeful(“Anything We Want”), and finally smoldering and seductive (“Hot Knife”).
Apple may still be driven by loss, but she’s not romanticizing it. Instead this album takes stock of how we get here — to isolation, yet again — and it fumes and fights, occasionally too hard (people spew “hot piss” and, at one point “teardrops season every plate”). But she not only tempers this occasional humor — see the opening lines of both “Valentine” and “Werewolf” — she also admits the flaw in all this. So while early on Apple may claim “I stand no chance of growing up,” don’t listen. Because, for all the foot-stomping vitriol that seeps out here and there, The Idler Wheel… is the sound of a brilliant songwriter putting away childish things, and waiting tensely for what comes next.