Fiona Apple has always been POP's outsider, and she's never seemed to care, which makes me like her all the more. She's a standout. Unlike anyone else, she writes every single one of her songs completely on her own without any assistance from other songwriters. Producers only take her material and assemble it for distribution once all the songs' melodies and lyrics have been established by Fiona herself. Her most recent release, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver of the Screw, And Whipping Chords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do, is perfectly representative. I've never listened to a full Fiona Apple album before this one; the only reason I made the effort this time around was because I planned on seeing her live, and wanted to be prepared. After all, a concert sucks when one is unfamiliar with the music, at least in my experience.
Half of the album is filled with sounds meant to sound completely grating, and half of it is actually quite melodic. Interestingly enough, these halves can both be found within individual songs, making each track a creative force. Though I do wish Fiona would write more gorgeous POP songs like Criminal and Shadowboxer, I respect her desire to color outside the lines, even if it means I won't be as avid a fan as I would otherwise. It's not as though she needs my loyalty; she has more than enough fans for a lasting career. Girl's been around since 1996.
The Idler Wheel... was produced by drummer Charley Drayton. Thus, the album has a very natural sound, with lots of piano and heavy percussion, giving the songs a jungle-like vibe. Though I don't do well in nature (as I like my four star amenities), I'll give Apple and Drayton the benefit of the doubt. This isn't how I would produce a record; I enjoy a sugary dose of synthesizers, but for what these two were presumably aiming for (a simple, beat-driven record), they did a great job. It ain't my cup of tea, but it doesn't mean I can' appreciate it. Here are my thoughts on some of the tracks:
1. Valentine - This song is so beautiful. Fiona starts out singing to ominous piano chords, "You didn't see my Valentine. I sent it via pantomime. While were you watching someone else, I stared at you and cut myself. It's all I'll do cuz I'm not free, a fugitive too dull to flee. I'm amorous, but out of reach, a still life drawing of a peach." Then the beat picks up, and the chords get a little weird as Fiona croons, "I root for you, you, you, you, you." However, when she gets back to the slow section, she capitalizes on her way with words, purring, "I made it to a dinner date. My teardrops seasoned every plate." I love how visually and emotionally descriptive she is. When she sings, "I cut myself" in that first line, I want to cry. Her self-harming desperation is such a relatable sentiment.
2. Jonathon - As one of the most aggressive songs on the record, it's quite unpleasant. It's my least favorite track. The music is very (intentionally) dissonant, and thus, not pleasant to listen to, but at least it's honest, right?
3. Werewolf - This song has the biggest hook on the record, making it another one of my favorites. Fiona howls, "I could liken you to a werewolf, the way you left me for dead, but I admit that I provided a full moon. And I could liken you to a shark, the way you bit off my head, but then again, I was waving around a bleeding open wound." Then, the hook comes in with the words, "...but you were such a super guy till the second you get away from me, and we're like a wishing well and a bolt of electricity. But we could still support each other, all we've got to do is avoid each other. Nothing wrong with a song that ends in a minor key." Gorgeous, just gorgeous! The concluding sample of children's joyful playground cheers provides an interesting contrast to a song that's quite sad. It reminds me of Marina's Teen Idle when a chorus of children sing, "feeling super super super," before Marina follows with, "suicidal."
4. Periphery - I don't like this song, as, once again, it features too much dissonance. However, I can't help but notice the ending, with another interesting sample of feet scrubbing against the sandy ground. Producer Charley Drayton certainly has a way of grabbing the audience's attention.
5. Anything We Want - This is third, and last, number that I've enjoyed off this record. Like Werewolf, it also contains a pretty hook when Fiona repeatedly sings, "And then we can do anything we want." Short, sweet, and simple. The end of the chorus/bridge (Fiona's songs don't follow a traditional songwriting format, so any particular portion is difficult to identify in standard structural terminology) is pretty, too, as the anti-diva hollers in a forceful yet restrained voice, "It's happening, it's happening, it's happening now."
6. Hot Knife - The very last piece of the puzzle, Hot Knife is more an experiment in percussion than an actual song. Fiona and Charley layer the singer's vocals. Toward the middle, one line, "If I'm butter, if I'm butter, if I'm butter, then he's hot knife, he makes my heart a cinemascope. He's showing the dancing bird of paradise" simultaneously plays with another, "If I'm a hot knife, if I'm a hot knife, if I'm hot knife, then he's a pad of butter. If I get a chance, I'm gonna show him that he's never gonna need another, never need another." When I first heard the song, I heard cinnamon instead of "cinnascope" (what is a cinemascope?), and thought cinnamon and butter sliced with a hot knife sounded quite appetizing, even though, in retrospect, it seems disgusting.
In summation, the grungey '90s Fiona is still apparent in each song. She is rock star in the purest, most artistic sense, channeling her anxiety into every lyric and note. There are no gimmicks and no gloss with this woman. You won't find any bonus material or commercialized deluxe editions, yet clearly this unformulaic formula works, as Fiona has no trouble selling out theaters and records. The Idler Wheel debuted at number three on the Billboard 200, with approximately 75,000 copies purchased in its first week of release. No, these aren't POP star sales numbers, but they ain't shabby in the least. I reckon Epic Records will make out just fine, as they've likely invested much less dough in this album then in a major POP release by semi-artists like Karmin and Cher Lloyd (who is quite talented). Thus, you've got to give this power girl her due credit. Good job, Fiona!