Fiona Apple stands in a peculiar place in the context of pop music. After gathering notoriety in the mid-90s for her single "Criminal" (and steamy accompanying music video), she has rarely taken much effort to become a public figure, instead retreating into her knotty and sparse (in multiple senses of the word) songwriting muse, taking only her more dedicated followers with her. In this sense she holds the polar opposite standpoint in contemporary music to someone like Beyoncé, who started her career at a similarly young age but has only embraced the role of a public figure more with time and age. This is an especially apt comparison when taken into account both women as of now have four solo albums each; however Apple's debut Tidal came out in 1996, whereas Dangerously In Love was released in 2003, just two years before Apple's next most recent album Extraordinary Machine.
Given Fiona Apple's persona on this new album, full title The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw, And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do, there may not be such a surprise to a relative newcomer such as myself that there needed to be a seven-year gap between the albums, or a six-year gap between Extraordinary Machine and the album before that. And it's also clear why her group of fans would stick with her irregularities, not only in her release schedule but in her piano arrangements and lyricism. They all serve as part of her appeal. In her songs Apple sounds vulnerable, lost but more crucially awkward and uncomfortable, most frequently in her relationships. She makes deliberate attempts to strain her vocal deliveries on tracks such as "Left Alone", where she stokes the fire of self-punishment and isolation over clanging minor chords. "Regret" continues in this manner, together they make up some of the darkest moments of the album, far removed from what could be picked up by a casual listener.
Although Apple's lyrics, vocals and piano rightfully steal the show on The Idler Wheel, they benefit greatly from the additions from drummer/percussionist Charley Drayton, who contributes many an interesting sound or idea to the majority of the tracks, from the glass bottles of "Anything We Want", to the unusually sampled machinery detailing the background of "Jonathan". None of these additions are particularly distracting, rather balance ideally between being attention-grabbing and complimentary. The Idler Wheel... is by no means a drummer's album, but has a drummer's love put into it, a useful counterpoint to Apple's jazz piano and voice.
Both musically and thematically The Idler Wheel... isn't something suited to widespread radio play for the most part, which is a shame, because Apple's ideas point towards areas tht have since disappeared from popular music. It's as if she's jumped through time and had no exposure to the last decade or so of music, which would usually be a criticism. It proves to be the album's strongest asset and main selling point however. It's unlikely that it'll find it's way to any more than a handful of teenage girls, but I hope that it does, because in spite of Apple's repeated traumas and mistakes the constant aspect of her personality that shines through is her strength, her bravery and confrontational attitude in her songs. It's no wonder fans that grew up on her earlier albums have stayed with her through to this one, and more importantly she doesn't disappoint them.
It's really difficult to compare The Idler Wheel to anything else out there, yet another dimension to it's appeal. If I was trying to describe it to my friends I would probably just end up with something like "intelligent pop music", which makes it sound as pretentious as it isn't. The only other recent album I could compare it to would be the excellent tUnE-yArDs album w h o k i l l, released last year. Both feature empowered, defeminised, confrontational women at their centre, however unlike Merril Garbus Fiona Apple is more focused on problems closer to home, reaching out to claim the strength to make her way through the world, a struggle that seemingly continues as her life carries on. If that's not a teenage sentiment, I don't know what is.
Click here for the rest of the 2012 Recommended Albums list