Perhaps the most defining moment in Fiona Apple’s career is the video for “Criminal” and the ensuing controversy over its “heroin chic” aesthetic. The clip, directed by Mark Romanek, showed Apple and various scantily clad models writhing around in a wood-paneled basement, looking like the most louche teenage orgy ever. As the video entered heavy rotation on MTV and VH1 and made Apple a star, the singer/songwriter—who was only then just out of her teens—divorced herself from the clip and decried it as exploitive and embarrassing.
In retrospect, that was the moment when Apple seemed to comprehend the darkest realities of pop celebrity, and she’s been on a tear ever since. She has steadfastly followed her own muse and made a show of disregarding industry demands, often disregarding the pop concessions that defined her debut, Tidal, in favor of a fiercely strident and more nakedly confessional approach. She still clings to the very ‘90s idea that hard truths elevate pop above its lowbrow nature, which means that her music can be uncomfortable and subversive but also that she’s never really a fun listen.
That stalwart integrity has resulted in her highest highs (When the Pawn…) as well as her lowest lows (rambling award speeches, awkward or truncated live performances, years and years between albums). As much as it guides her, Apple’s muse can lead her astray: Seven years ago, she and her label nearly had a falling-out over which version of her third album, Extraordinary Machine, to release. Epic scrapped the original recordings she had made with longtime collaborator Jon Brion and eventually released a version by Mike Elizondo (Eminem, Regina Spektor). Fans came to Apple’s defense, but Epic got it right: Brion’s version sounded like every other production job he’s ever done, while Elizondo enlivened her songs with hip-hop-derived beats and a crisp sound that underscored the album’s title.
Still, that sense of personal mission, even when it doesn’t serve her music particularly well, is precisely what endears Apple to her fans, and it’s perhaps a testimony to her public persona (which is seemingly not public at all) that seven long years after the Extraordinary Machine dust-up, Apple’s fourth album is perhaps the most eagerly anticipated release of 2012. All the eccentricities seem to be intact on The Idler Wheel: the reliance on big words and jumbled phrasing, the delivery that’s somehow both intimate and operatic, the seemingly nonsensical poem-as-album-title. Even the album cover, so knowingly ugly and off-putting, cautions rather than entices listeners. A self-portrait, the image suggests a woman whose head is heavy with ideas both creative and destructive. In that sense, it’s a perfect match to Apple’s songs.
Musically, The Idler Wheel is gaunt and foreboding, her most austere work to date. With no producer credited (perhaps a corrective to the Extraordinary Machine controversy), the album places Apple’s voice and piano squarely at the forefront, while tour drummer Charley Drayton adds ambient flourishes of percussion rather than rhythmic propulsion. The low-key beat on “Jonathan” evokes the lulling sway of a subway car rather than its forward motion, and the clatter of “Periphery” is decidedly menacing, alternately suggesting a marching military and a lone, limping horror-movie killer. Even 16 years into her unlikely career, it’s still startling to hear Apple in such a stern setting, almost nakedly a cappella, and she has only grown more bravely inventive as a singer. On opener “Every Single Night,” she volleys between an exaggerated stage whisper on the verses and a whooping war cry on the chorus. It’s a weird but undeniably compelling performance, conjuring an intimacy that’s almost too intense. Few vocalists can erase the distance between performer and listener as shrewdly as Apple can, and that toggle gives The Idler Wheel its strange power.
The fact that Apple can’t get out of her own head—can’t even begin to write a song that doesn’t build on layers of self-conscious self-absorption and gritty self-loathing—may in fact be one of her greatest and most distinguishing strengths as an artist; none of her ‘90s peers have survived so long, and younger artists playing piano in her wake don’t seem nearly as committed to such dire, all-consuming confessionalism. The downside is that her lyrics can provoke cringes as easily as sympathetic nods, and The Idler Wheel is full of anguished metaphors, lurid rhyme schemes and clunky sentiments like “You didn’t see my valentine / I sent it via pantomime.” But whether she intends it or not, Apple’s overwrought lyrics exert a considerable power, marking these songs as indelibly her own and suggesting that her emotions are too messy for the relatively staid language of most pop music. “If I’m butter, he’s a hot knife,” she declares on “Hot Knife.” It’s a faintly ridiculous metaphor, too kitchen-sink for the song’s exaggerated sexual determinism, but Apple twists and bends it into something remarkably forceful and complex, switching the pronouns and repeating the lines until they sound like a personal mantra: a defense mechanism against loneliness.
For all her famed prolixity, Apple can also fire off a startlingly concise line that puts her entire life into a new perspective. “How can I ask anyone to love when all I do is beg to be left alone?” may be the most perfect lyric she’s ever written, neatly summing up both her neediness and her self-possession. To her immense credit, Apple never flinches at such uneasy insights and insoluble contradictions, which makes The Idler Wheel a tough but rewarding listen. She may work in a form that’s notorious for its introversion, but at heart Apple’s a pop extrovert: She makes it painfully and gloriously clear that her pain is our pain, that her horrors are universal.