Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Album Review - "The Idler Wheel..."

A review of Fiona Apple's new album after the jump:

Fiona Apple's The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Chords Will Serve You More Than Rope Will Ever Do is a positively exhausting album. Its bizarre and slightly scary title makes a weird sort of sense after listening to these ten tremendous tracks, many of which sound quite harrowing and dissonant. I hesitate to call it a complete shift in style from Apple's previous album (the excellent Extraordinary Machine), because there are at least a few songs on The Idler Wheel that would fit quite nicely --- musically at least, though perhaps not lyrically --- on that earlier work. Still, the album as a whole feels extremely harsh, which is not a bad thing at all.

That harshness is evident from "Every Single Night", a powerful and spare track that features some deeply evocative and dark lyrics. It's among the album's finest offerings, and along with the follow-up song "Daredevil" it essentially drops you into The Idler Wheel headfirst. Apple saves the more conventional sounding (by her standards) songs such as "Werewolf" and "Anything We Want" for the album's second half, but even these generally have a darker tone than the majority of Extraordinary Machine or even When the Pawn*. Note the references to a "bleeding open wound" and "chemicals" to describe the relationship depicted in the former.

And those two tracks are easily The Idler Wheel at its most endearing. But then, endearing isn't really what Apple set out to do here. She's made a record that consumes and pummels the listener through the use of musical tools such as frantic percussion, piano chords that are flat out pounded, and vocals which seem almost unstable at times. This isn't to say that it's unpleasant to listen to, because nothing could be further from the truth. The music on this album is frequently austere, but it's also beautiful from start to finish. Apple's piano and stunning voice carry the songs through their initial harshness with superb skill.

The Idler Wheel is an album to marvel at. Though few of the songs are as immediately gripping as we're used to from Apple, they're intriguing enough that we keep coming back for more. And once you have a few listens under your belt, the album's status as an instant classic becomes clear. Apple chooses to end it with "Hot Knife", a stunningly complex track involving what sounds like dozens --- although it's actually probably only a handful --- of overlapping voices singing its incredibly catchy melody over and over again. It could have been a disaster, but instead it's a glorious and giddy piece of music that represents the work of an astonishingly confident artist.

As does the entirety of The Idler Wheel. I'm not sure it's better than When the Pawn, but it's close. Every track is a standout. "Regret" contains one of Apple's finest vocal performances ever, and "Periphery" features some of her best piano playing (as well as one of her best melodies). The volatile percussion intro to "Left Alone" leads to an equally out of control tune that still finds room for moments of heartbreaking beauty when she sings the following: "How can I ask anyone to love me / When all I do is beg to be left alone?" I could go on, but in the interest of keeping my praise from turning into hyperbole I will end simply by saying that this album is a little over forty two minutes of musical bliss, and one that in my eyes merits the title of masterpiece. Genius.

Album Grade: A

* I haven't listened to Tidal yet. I have a copy of it out from the library right now, though, so I may be getting to it pretty soon.

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