The secret genius of Fiona Apple’s new album is that it’s enjoyable.
Granted, the album, whose long title we’ll shorten to The Idler Wheel…, is overtly brilliant in many ways. It’s a record so good that it forces pop music critics to do their best work as they grapple with its achievement.
At NPR’s website, for instance, Ann Powers makes the razor-sharp insight that while most pop music tries to prove how beautiful emotions can be, “Apple has always dared herself to be and do something else: to say no to simple beauty and instead express the urges and insecurities that more accommodating artists tend to avoid.”
In other words, Apple isn’t trying to make her heartbreak seem noble. She’s trying to demonstrate how disturbing it is. She’s not trying to make her neuroses seem like beautiful accessories. She’s creating lyrics and music that reflect how ferocious they are. Her music is alive with sadness, it throbs with self-deprecation. It isn’t pretty, but it’s transfixing.
But like I said before, it’s also enjoyable. And for me, that’s what makes this album—and all of Apple’s albums—so spectacular. There are plenty of bands who break apart traditional pop songs and replace them with dissonance or absurdity or, like, a thousand monkeys banging on a thousand tiny cans. At best, these bands make the kind of music I can appreciate but never truly like. They make homework music, not life music.
Apple, however, gives me both. The Idler Wheel… delivers songs I want to study and am also eager to hear again. It demands my attention, but it also gives me a visceral thrill.
This is partly because Apple’s just got a beautiful voice. She does strange things with it, but no matter what, she sounds incredible. Growling or fluttering or belting, I always want to pay attention. Plus, her songs, as strange and arresting as they are, still keep their roots in pop structures. Somewhere in there, there’s always a chorus or a hook… some small thing to hang my ear on as I decipher her eloquent lyrics. It makes me feel like Apple is inviting me into the conversation she’s having with and about herself, and I appreciate that.
The song “Left Alone” proves my point. It sums up all the best qualities of this excellent album.
For one thing, it starts with over thirty seconds of skittering percussion. For a song about a woman who can’t handle other people—who can’t truly love a man because she just wants to be left alone with her twisted thoughts—that makes perfect sense. The song itself seems nervous about starting. It’s wasting time in the hope that we’ll go away. And even after that bouncy piano comes in, we don’t hear Apple’s voice for another 20 seconds. The late entry just underscores the fear of commitment she’s singing about.
And when she does starts singing, she clarifies her messed-up mind with some incredible lyrics:
You made your major overtures when you were a sure and orotund mutt.
And I was still a dewey petal rather than a moribund slut.
My love wrecked you, you packed to twirl your skirt at the palace.
It hurt more than it ought to hurt—I went to work to cultivate a callus.
And now I’m hard, too hard to know…
… How can I ask anyone to love me
when all I ask is to be left alone?
GOD! I could write an entire essay about how brilliant those lyrics are, and that’s just a selection. And don’t even think the music stays simple while the words get wild. OH NO. Ms. Fiona goes ahead and hits those crazy high and low notes, and in the chorus, when she’s making the worst revelation about herself, the music slows down and smooths out. It’s like she’s saying, “Listen closely: This is why I’m poison.” And from there, the skittery rhythm picks up again, a little more manic than before.
And I mean… that’s exciting. It might be sad and fucked up, but it’s also alive. It demands to be heard.
Mark Blankenship tweets as @IAmBlankenship. He worked out to Fiona Apple’s new album yesterday, which was kind of jarring.