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CD review: Fiona Apple’s ‘The Idler Wheel …’

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Yeah, she’s intense, but would you have Fiona Apple any other way?
Annie Zaleski

The Details

Fiona Apple
The Idler Wheel ...
Three and a half stars

Fiona Apple is fiercely protective of her music. The recording process for 2005’s Extraordinary Machine was laborious and spread out over several years, and she reportedly kept her new album, The Idler Wheel ..., under wraps until the corporate structure at her label had solidified. Apple’s perfectionist veneer is more self-preservation than anything: The smoky-voiced 34-year-old only knows how to create deeply personal music with all of her insecurities and sorrows on full display.

The Idler Wheel is no different. Sample lyrics: “You didn’t see my valentine/I sent it via pantomime/While you were watching someone else/I stared at you and cut myself.” Still, because Apple co-produced the album with her percussionist, Charley Drayton—and used only acoustic instruments, mostly percussion and piano—texture and rhythm dominate the misty jazz, Broadway vamping, fragile baroque-pop, bluesy saloon ragers and cartoonish orchestration. Melody and structure downplayed, The Idler Wheel occasionally feels unmoored and meandering.

Grounding the record are its poignant, blunt lyrics. On “Left Alone,” a rolling drum solo gives way to boiling-water piano—discontent to match the self-loathing vocals: “How can I ask anyone to love me/When all I do is beg to be left alone.” “Periphery,” with its thundering, swinging chords, simultaneously sneers at and relishes outsider status.

Apple sounds most centered on “Hot Knife,” which stacks layers of a cappella vocals until a trilling cacophony emerges, simulating fluttering lust: “I get feisty/Whenever I’m with him.” The confidence in the song is uplifting, ending a lovely but uneven album on a high note.

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