One of the biggest problems with Fiona Apple has nothing to do with Fiona Apple herself. Tidal netted her a boatload of fame, but fame was not gentle with the young songwriter, and she immediately established herself as a slightly-skittish musical recluse. “Criminal” was a big hit, yes, but it may have been a curse for her, as it is entirely possible that nobody realized that there was a somewhat troubled and incredibly talented musician buried there; when her touring schedule was announced, I told my wife, “I really need to go see Fiona Apple,” to which she responded, “Yeah, but then you’d be seeing Fiona Apple.” Forgive her, for she did not know. I was still young when Tidal was released, so I was never aware of a time when she was exposed to the limelight; all I have ever known is a troubled soul behind a piano. But to some, the memory of a beautiful pop hopeful never quite left their memories.
To be fair, you can’t truly blame people for this, due to the fact that her history in the public eye has been checkered at best. Apple has always been open about the fact that she never writes when she doesn’t have anything to write, which has meant that her recording history, too, has been somewhat scattered. It has been a full seven years since Extraordinary Machine, an album that felt like a real breath of fresh air all those years ago, but it felt for quite some time that there was no way she would come back as strong as she came off on that record, and indeed the two that came before it. When a musician becomes a semi- or full-on-recluse, you spend a lot of time wondering: “will the next record be good?”
The fortunate thing is that habit of never writing to write makes her music feel special. When you listen to When The Pawn… and Extraordinary Machine, it never feels like notes or words have been wasted, meaning that none of her songs ever feel like filler. This feels even more like the case when you listen to The Idler Wheel, Apple’s fourth record overall, and first in seven years. And, if you haven’t heard the record yet, and share my worries, let me put them at ease: she hasn’t lost an ounce of power. To be fair, though, it never quite feels like she’s using much of it.
When you listen to the record, the first thing you notice is that it feels like it was recorded in a vacuum. I was informed ahead of time that The Idler Wheel was sparse, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the setup that met me: it’s just her, and her piano, and an occasional drum beat for rhythm. And that’s it. Things are layered on top of themselves to create a certain amount of depth, but once you begin to wrap your mind around the fact that every extra voice you hear in a song like “Hot Knife” is just another Fiona Apple, the album’s minimal grandeur begins to collapse in on itself.
In the last 24 hours, I have listened to The Idler Wheel three times, but when I sat down to write about the record, I found that I couldn’t conjure up a true memory of any of the songs. There are definite standouts here: “Every Single Night” is a particularly beautiful beginning to the record, while “Left Alone,” one of the few percussive tracks on the record, trundles along at an irregular and mystifying pace. But when you try and grab onto these moments, they start to feel a little like sand, and begin to slip through your hands, like a dream upon waking. When compared to her previous work, it’s often disconcerting, given the lucid nature of those albums. Despite this, however, it feels like, the more you dig yourself into the record, and familiarize yourself with the direction taken here, it will become easier to grab onto those strings and hold on to details and directions she goes in.
Is The Idler Wheel the kind of album that is going to turn people onto a somehow-well-kept secret we’ve all known about for years? Probably not, but that’s just okay. In reality, Fiona Apple wasn’t meant for everybody, despite her obvious abilities. But to those of us that do get it, this album presents itself as the best thing possible, after such a long silence: one of her most dreamlike, but still engaging, records yet. And, if we have to wait another 3/4 of a decade for the next signs of life from her, I’m sure it, too, will be completely worth the wait.