Singing about emotions isn’t much to get excited about. What we tend to get are artists like Adele, who, to say nothing of the music behind them, are simply belting out to us about some feeling. Their notes may be hit perfectly, but their singing is classical and removed, it doesn’t show us that they themselves have felt this. Instead they tell us again and again that they have felt it. Fiona Apple takes her time between albums, almost making them seem precious to her. The Idler Wheel… is a release of an amalgam of emotions, deeply felt and deeply conveyed. We can hear it all in Apple’s voice, no matter what style of acrobatics she’s pulling throughout the track.
Largely there are two parts to these tracks, Apple’s voice and the movement behind her. It’s startling how physical and alive these worlds feel. During the song Jonathan the percussion is almost machinelike. We can hear steam in the background as if hissing from pistons. There’s a fluttering movement on Daredevil and a creaking room in Werewolf. On Periphery there’s a constant rattling like footsteps scraping along the ground. The percussion here is all very deliberate and often deep behind her. In general, the drums are far away and echoey and will on occasion tap in beside Apple, but they most often hang behind her.
Otherwise the crux of the instrumental end is Apple and her piano. Often enough a guitar might be along side her, but largely the two instruments will be played simultaneously as if they were one. It creates a fantastic texture as if the piano had a string plucked right down the core of a hammer strike. The keys of the piano themselves can change between the tune of chimes or guitar strings, it can sound eerie or open and deep. The notes can be straightforward and bouncy or tumbling around and jazzy like on Left Alone.
Leading us through this all is Apple’s distinct and varied vocals. Each word here is precious, fully enunciated and given to us with deliberacy. We’re in for something different track to track. Opening piece Every Single Night has Apple delicately delivering us her vocals up until a specific word in the refrain where Apple rises alongside her own voice into a fleeting multitracked choral pronunciation of the word “brain.” Later, in Left Alone, Apple spits the words out at us in quick tongued singing as if the notes are stumbling quickly along a staircase. “I can love the same man in the same bed in the same city but not in the same room it’s a pity.” She races through lyrics that would only work at this precisely delivered form and rushing speed. During Daredevil Apple begins out of nowhere to plead with us, nearly screaming, “Seek me out. Look at me.”
Listening to this album one will quickly realize that Apple is one for metaphors. ”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.” It may not be one you see every day, but in itself it might be a little lame if it weren’t for Apple’s commitment to it. Other’s work stronger, such as on the opener when she sings, “that’s where the pain comes in, like a second skeleton.” Her best metaphors evoke images as well as emotions. On Valentine she sings, “I’m a tulip in a cup. I stand no chance of growing up.” In the final track, Hot Knife, a racing and catchy piece that finds Apple again multitracked above herself, she considers her relationship with a man within the context of a knife and butter, simultaneously placing both of them in each role.
More important than this casual emotional allowance is Apple’s ability to sing something truly learned. After finishing her shark metaphor (among others), Apple sings, “We can still support each other. All we gotta do is avoid each other.” It’s a brilliant insight into relationships that goes down in the same song that she casually sings, “There’s nothing wrong when a song ends in the minor key.” During the track Jonathan, she simplifies an entire relationship dynamic, “For heaven’s sake don’t make me explain, just tolerate my little fists tugging on your forest chest.” She’s deeply open about herself. “How can I ask anyone to love me when all I do is beg to be left alone?” Elsewhere, after discussing the pains of knowledge like this, she notes, “I just wanna feel everything.” It might be the reason she has so much to say.
Aside from being good, interesting, and strongly emotional, there isn’t necessarily a tie throughout this album. Of course, complex threads like this are only worth looking for once an album has reached such a point of quality and complexity as it is. Either way, these pieces don’t feel disjointed. They’re all personal, alive pieces that largely feel to be of equal importance. None are strictly catchy, not in the standard sense at least. Perhaps you’ll cling to a metaphor or the way she spits out a certain word. Regardless, it’s a complex musicality and deep emotional understanding that makes this worth repeated listenings.