Or to give the album its proper title, The Idler Wheel is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You Better than Ropes Will Ever Do. Yes, Fiona Apple and her exceptionally long album titles are back. Coming 7 years after the much easier to say Extraordinary Machine, Miss Apple has produced another sterling, if understated, slice of idiosyncratic jazz imbued audio.
I’ve been a fan of Fiona Apple’s work since her 1996 debut Tidal, and so it was a very pleasant surprise to find this album on a shelf of a nearby Fopp whilst idly browsing the store. It had been so long since I’d last listened to Extraordinary Machine that for some reason I assumed she’d given up the music game. Considering her history and how music has been such an outlet for her I should have nipped that thought as soon as it entered my mind.
I find Fiona Apple a curious woman and I mean that in the proper definition of the word, not as a slight. I find myself drawn into the honest and visual lyrics and intrigued by the experience that behind it that shaped the song. I find that you can always feel the personal sentiment behind the tale she’s sharing with the listener. Her vocals are excellent, with a naturally deeper tone than many female singers yet capable of beautiful high notes without Aguilera style screeches and warbles.
Whereas Extraordinary Machine contained a few curiously quirky and upbeat numbers (at least musically; she’s never been one for the lyrical odes to joy), I found The Idler Wheel to be considerably subtler in execution, yet with a complexity to the construction that belies the apparent simplicity of the music. Based primarily on piano throughout with varying delicate accompaniments, the new album feels like it’s been stripped back to basics yet with her years of experience as an artist and a woman weaved carefully into the aural tapestry.
There are some fine moments with multi-layered vocals such as on closing track “Hot Knife” (unless you buy the iTunes edition which has an extra song) on which the beautiful and contrasting layered vocals are supplemented only by a timpani style drum. It feels so simple yet must have been excruciatingly complex to create and it’s that sort of care and attention given to her craft that intrigues me so much. I’m not the biggest fan of jazz at all, yet I find myself really enjoying the overtly jazz elements of the album such as at the core of the excellent “Left Alone”. That said it’s far from a jazz album.
I really like this record, although I have to acknowledge that it’s maybe not going to be for everyone – there are more accessible records in her own discography – but if you are unfamiliar with her work then I would urge anyone who enjoys creative female artists such as Fiona Apple’s contemporary and eternal comparison Tori Amos, or more recent artists like Regina Spektor to give this album a good listen. I’m sure you’ll find it as enchanting and enthralling as I have and will be listening again and again.