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Love and loneliness do not particularly contrast each other, but the existence of one in a person’s life often suggests that the other feeling has less impact. Fiona Apple, whose fourth album “The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of The Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do” deals extensively with such a tug and pull of emotion, knows personal strain firsthand.
Her album, an uncomfortable cross-section of her love life, effectively personifies her roughshod point of view through unorthodox production and a harrowing vocal performance.
Apple’s harsh relationship woes stem from her sexual assault at twelve years old, a horrific experience which she detailed on “Sullen Girl,” a song from her debut album “Tidal.” As a result, Apple’s bouts with love on “Tidal” were understandably atypical for a nineteen-year-old, claiming that she made others hide on “Sleep to Dream” or her inability to fully embrace the love of another on “Never Is A Promise.”
Her first album, lyrically, would perfectly accompany a bad breakup, but Andrew Slater’s suave production and Apple’s warm voice were the drops of honey that eased her painful poetry. “The Idler Wheel,” for better or worse, is a stark contrast to “Tidal”’s pop sensibilities. The skeletal production and Apple’s more expressionistic vocals assure that only she defines her distraught emotions.
Although the fifteen year journey since “Tidal” has been a pleasant one in the eyes of her admirers — with two subsequent albums, many Grammy nominations and one win — Apple, now 34, begs to differ. On “The Idler Wheel,” Apple desperately needs the love of another: ”I just want to feel everything,” but cannot handle the passion when it comes: “I don’t feel anything until I smash it up.” Her voice, normally calm and humble, sounds strained and thin on the album and at times erupts in a throaty growl of frustration.
The type of frustration Apple suffers from derives from not only how seemingly incompatible she has been with former paramours, but how her ex-boyfriends move on to much healthier relationships, highlighted by the dour tunes “Valentine” and “Periphery.” The uncomfortable thought of never being a worthy soul mate to another causes her bleak distress.
The brutally candid song “Jonathan” speaks of Apple’s melancholy in regards to her past relationship with author Jonathan Ames. She questions his love for her in a self-deprecating manner over her demented piano melody as haunting machine parts grind in the distance: “You’re like the captain of a capsized ship.”
Just as her poignant lyrics leave no emotion unattended, the stripped down instrumentation keeps the listener in tune to Apple’s mood. On “Daredevil,” Apple’s unorthodox rhythm from her hands constantly slapping her thighs coincides with the song’s theme of her destructive tendencies.
In contrast, the simple, sweet guitar and bottle percussion suggest the earnest love affair she speaks of on “Anything We Want” exists solely in her mind. Apple, now in control of the production, perfectly molds her trademark piano playing, a smattering of guitar and odd, makeshift percussion into the instrumentals of her spiralling dismay.
Although the album succeeds at displaying Apple’s dilapidated journey of love, the journey through the album is an enervating listen. Her brazen songs are a refreshingly honest view of love in lieu of pop’s usual slash-and-burn love affairs, but having no real respite from her pain until the harmonious finale, “Hot Knife,” hampers the comfort of repeated listens.
In the end, Apple’s lament makes the album evolve beyond the overdone exercise in sappy piano ballads “The Idler Wheel…” could have been. As a coarse and visceral window into her soul, it allows listeners to not only know how Apple’s scarred past pushes people away, but to experience it firsthand.