Sunday, July 22, 2012

Fiona Apple's Idler Wheel demonstrates impeccable eye for detail

Fiona Apple has cemented herself as one of today's most dynamic voices. Her prose is poetic, bearing similarity to Emily Dickinson. And like the Amherst poet, they both have been through great personal trauma, and their eccentricity likewise colors their work. The Idler Wheel... is one of the most original, complex and intricately structured pop albums in recent memory.

On the surface, the topical focus appears to be on Apple's failed relationships, but delve deeper and it you can see the spotlight is upon Apple herself and her own shortcomings. This is an emotionally grueling record; most of the time it sounds like she's getting ready to have a nervous breakdown. By album's end though, she recovers a bit to flaunt a strong and even seductive side.

Opener "Every Single Night" seems to be an ode to her insanity, with descriptions of butterflies floating in her brain and an odd African Swahili sounding chorus. She hits an impressive flow that seems effortless, but you can tell intense care and scrutiny went into the composition.

Another key aspect of this album is its sense of variation; many songs are intricately layered and structured in a way that each verse can sound fresh even though she's sticking to the same basic melody. Take "Daredevil." The first line of the song:

"I guess I just must be a daredevil"

is broken up into three lines, with short pauses between each line break:

I guess/
I just/
must be a daredevil/

These little stutters give an air of thoughtfulness to the song, as if she's carefully considering each word. But once that's been established, she omits the pauses at the start of the second verse to give it a different feel and demeanor. By changing the rhythm and meter within a song, Apple keeps things fresh without changing the basic structure of the song.

"Jonathan" is among the most unusual love songs you will ever hear. It's ominous, brooding and foreboding with a disjointed main piano riff that she amazingly builds a vocal hook around. She reveals she's willing to go to any lengths to be with her man, even overlooking things he's done with women in the past.

"Left Alone" is an easy album highlight, and likely one of the best songs in her catalog. The lyrical theme is about being so calloused by failed relationships that you shut yourself off to all possible future love. It opens with a sashaying piano melody in an offbeat time signature, which sets the tone. She sounds numb and downbeat on the opening verse, but the emotion explodes starting in the first chorus. The second verse sounds like she's trying to return to being numb but can't quite bottle all her emotion. Once again, there's plenty of variation within the verses.

"Werewolf" features a strong central refrain: "Nothing's wrong when a song ends in a minor key."

If you weren't paying attention, you might think she's offering obtuse advice on writing music.The song is built upon metaphor, talking about unrequited love and comparing the object of her affection to a werewolf, a shark and a chemical compound. But in the end she turns the spotlight on her own deep seated issues. Look at the way she describes their relationship:

"We are like a wishing well/
and a bolt of electricity"

Apple's genius becomes clear when you realize the business about a minor key is actually a metaphor for their entire relationship. At the end, she repeats the refrain several times, as though she's trying to convince herself. And the whole time you probably thought the song was just an ode to stuffy songwriting philosophies.

The album closes with a pair of more optimistic tracks. Apple beckons her lover on the rough around the edges single "Anything We Want," while "Hot Knife" stands is vastly different from anything else on the record. 

The structure is built around overlapping Apple's lead vocal over a chorus of background singers. It may sound chaotic and unorganized since they're singing different things at the same time. But it is perhaps a fitting culmination to a record that is built around structuring things to sound unorganized while actually having an intricate plan the whole time.

On The Idler Wheel... you see her world through Apple's eyes, but in a way that reveals a central truth about her flawed nature. And we might just see a little of ourselves in Apple's distorted image from time to time. Some of it is a bit weird so it might not be a record for everyone, but it is still through and through a pop album. These songs will get stuck in your head. So if you've got friends who are into more generic pop music and you want to introduce them to this, I've some advice: tell the truth, but tell it slant.

Score: 93/100

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