Review: David D. Robbins Jr./Their Bated Breath
Album: Fiona Apple “The Idler Wheel”
Release: June 19, 2012 (Epic Records)
Fiona Apple can do anything she wants. There are a few artists who have that luxury, largely because loyal fans make their records nearly failure-proof. Whether you like Apple’s music or not, each of her albums gives the sense that she’s left chunks of her own flesh in the making of it. The self-indulgently titled “The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do” is no different. It’s full of self-loathing, retribution, penance, heartache, anger, and love. Frankly, it’s a brave and risky recording, even for an artist with such a devoted fan base. This is an impassioned album that sometimes demands not to be loved. It’s unbalanced and erratic, but captivating. It rocks back and forth between melodic and harsh. “Every Single Night” is the opening track, beginning with light bells, like the tinging of a music box. The song finds Apple in a familiar place to 2005’s “Extraordinary Machine”, musically and lyrically. One again, she’s feeling mechanized and disconnected: “My heart’s made of parts of all that surrounds me / And that’s why the devil just can’t get around me.” Despite feeling outside of herself and disconnected, the album opener also expresses a desire for a Walt Whitman-esque kind of universality: “I just wanna be everything / I just wanna feel everything.”
But “Every Single Night” is also a melodic sucker-punch. Paired with the Zap Mama-styled, poly-harmonic scaling of “Hot Knife”, both songs serve as gilded bookends to the cacophonous, meaty middle of the record. Apple makes an immediate U-turn with the dissonant second track, “Daredevil”, her gravelly vocals signaling the jarring and yet mesmerizing stop-and-go nature of the record: “I don’t feel anything, until I smash it up.” One of the most impressive things about this record is how it makes use of contrast and juxtaposition. The exquisite is paired with the blunt. Melodies with minor chords. Harsh screaming and pretty vocal acrobatics. Angry tracks followed by lush ones. And sometimes within the same song, atonal sounds find space amid poetic lyricism. Apple made this record, primarily with the help of multi-instrumentalist Charlie Dayton, and the background sounds heard on many of the tracks are truly an invention of miscellany. Apple and Dayton use pillows, duct tape, and thighs (listed in the album liner notes) to create percussion or add texture where needed.
The lithe and lonely “Valentine” allows Apple to show off her lovely, simply-written poetics: “I made it to a dinner date / My tear-drops seasoned every plate / I tried to dance but lost my nerve / I cramped up in the learning curve.” It’s a song that teeters between images of self-mutilation and adoration. Apple seems comfortable, and even inspired, by thoughts of her own instability. Her songs about relationships at an end make interesting use of boat-sinking metaphors, like the “capsized ships” of “Jonathan” (a song about a trip to Coney Island with ex-boyfriend and writer Jonathan Ames) and the abandoning sailor in “O’ Sailor”.
However, she’s most comfortable looking for a fight. She’s always trying to explain herself. It’s hardly surprising that “Extraordinary Machine” caused a clash between the artist and her label. Or that Apple lashed out with a 90-word album title (1999’s “When the Pawn …”) in response to negative comments about her in Spin Magazine. If there’s any lesson to be learned, it’s that conflict is what sets Apple’s creativity ablaze. It could be the dissolution of a love affair that sets her to full tilt, or a fight over album expectations, or an onstage breakdown, or a hatred for the phony world of celebrity. It’s all gasoline on the fire.
Two of the album’s latter tracks (“Regret”, “Anything We Want”) feel like one, and in combination with “Hot Knife”, are as good a closing to a record as you’ll hear. The flat-out stunning “Regret” opens with deep, resonating piano chords that build into Apple’s most visceral singing — her throaty growls rubbing the words raw. Like most of the record, “Regret” is a razor. Dark, guttural moans/chants transition between the main verses, as percussion and piano lead Apple’s shredded vocals down a path of fiery outrage: “I ran out of white-dove feathers / To soak up the hot piss that comes from your mouth / Every time you address me, alone / Leave me alone.” But this wouldn’t be a proper Apple album if the songs themselves weren’t arranged manically too. The following track, “Anything We Want”, veers away from the darkness of “Regret”, returning to pretty, warmer melodies, and thoughts of love. The nostalgic song begins with a clatter of metal or glass, like the noises of a diner come to life in syncopation. But those irregular rhythms fade into a charming blend of bass guitar, fluttery piano, and Apple’s lifting vocals.
Where an idiosyncratic artist like Bjork is so obviously curious about the outside world (so much so that she’s left the universe for a unifying approach to her latest record, “Biophilia”), Apple’s new record is obsessionally insular, neurotic, breaking apart from the inside. It’s a bold deconstruction of her own thought processes — full of manias, phobias, personal disclosures, and wildly beautiful non-sequiturs: “Every single night / I endure the flight / Of little wings of light-flamed / Butterflies in my brain / These ideas of mine /Percolate the mind / Trickle down the spine / Swarm the belly / Swelling to a blaze / That’s where the pain comes in / Like a second skeleton.”
Yet, it’s enough to make one think Apple is self-obsessed. But who isn’t? We live in our own heads. It’s nearly impossible to see things with objectivity, because everything is always filtered through our own cognitive processes. In a way, Apple’s weakness is also her strength. Whether it’s the aftermath of a breakup in the gorgeous “Carrion” from her 1996 record “Tidal” or the swelling anger of “Limp” off “When the Pawn” — Apple makes honest music. Say what you will, but fans respect that. Gorgeous music doesn’t always have to be about hitting the high notes, building rainbow melodies, and dishing out layers of saccharine cliche. “The Idler Wheel” shows that there’s a unique kind of beauty in discord, minor chords, imperfection, and unhinged passions. Scars are a badge of honor, and blood proves one is still alive.