Fiona Apple is clearly an artist who works to her own schedule, having released just four albums in 16 years, but The Idler Wheel… shows that patience nearly always pays off, because it’s been worth the seven year wait.
Patience is certainly a virtue when it comes to Apple’s career, and for herself as well, given that she finished this album over a year ago and then sat on it (not literally, presumably) until she felt the time was right, then finally handed it over to her record company, the first they knew of it even being written.
After the kerfuffle surrounding the recording and re-recording of Extraordinary Machines, it’s no surprise that she wanted to play her cards closer to her chest this time, because as great as that album was, it had been undermined slightly by the leaking of some of the Jon Brion session tracks, which some still insist were better than the re-recorded final releases.
No such trouble here, and no Brion either. This time she worked with session drummer Charley Drayton on production, and you can certainly see his influence on what is a very sparse and percussive sound. Of course, Apple’s never had an overly-symphonic production, even on the more ‘out there’ last album, but The Idler Wheel… is definitely one that makes you work harder to appreciate it.
On opener Every Single Night and closer Hot Knife, most of the catchiness comes from her own vocal effects rather than the instruments, with the latter featuring gospel-esque chants made from overlapping samples of herself singing different versions of the chorus. It works well and makes for a hot and steamy end to an album that is typically frank and honest lyrically, and finishes with a bang with Hot Knife and Anything We Want.
Earlier on, tracks like Valentine and the brilliant Left Alone paint a less rosy picture of Apple’s love life, so she certainly keeps her audience guessing what the whipping cords in the full title (The Idler Wheel Is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do) are going to be used for. But then again, this is a Fiona Apple album, not an EL James novel, and they’re more likely to be employed as percussion than anything sordid.
Having painted a picture of an album that is tough to listen to at times, I should clarify that this is hardly Medulla by Bjork. Apple’s jazz-influenced musicality is still to the fore, and while it may be more challenging than her earlier work, it’s still a very listenable album, even first time out. Songs like Periphery and Daredevil are fantastic and memorable straight away, and get better with each listen.
Of course, the danger is, with an artist like Apple, that the long gaps between albums build up a sense of An Event each time she does release something, risking critics going overboard with praise. That said, she is a rare talent and The Idler Wheel… is a great album which deserves the acclaim it has received so far. It is both different enough and similar enough to her usual style to make it interesting, entertaining and, at times, thrilling.