Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Fiona Apple: The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (2012)



So far all of Fiona Apple's records have worked fine for me; I split with my peers on the Extraordinary Machine argument a bit, but aside from that I concur with everyone that she's a vital and inventive voice, simply one I hadn't really connected with on such a deep level as many. Initially it seemed like the same was true of her new record and the one that's provided her with something like a critical breakthrough, or at least has underlined the growth in her reputation since 2005. I filed it away as a solid record that just wasn't necessarily something for which I could feel a lot of passion. To briefly explain this: I don't really know. You know how you can know something's there even if you can't get to it? That was how I always felt.

But spending a good deal longer with this intimate and wildly individualistic record has made me a convert. My interest in Apple has tended over the years to be in her voice more than her songs, and her voice remains the hook here -- chirping, growling, intimating, demanding, it's an incredible performance and seems to occupy a seamless place in the album from beginning to end, as though it were recorded in one sitting. Desire and self-criticism, anger and loss have always been communicated less in her words than in her singing, and that doesn't change here, but if you take the time you're likely to notice that the words are often, well, glorious. But for your first several exposures, stick to the visceral -- that's where this is most rewarding. You may never even get to the point that the words demand your attention, but you won't be displeased when they do so, whether at simple enough turns like "Look at look at look at me / I'm all the fishes in the sea" (pained, percussive "Daredevil") or the winking love note "I'm amorous but out of reach / A still life drawing of a peach" ("Valentine") or the mindbendingly wonderful "he makes my heart a Cinemascope screen / showing the dancing bird of paradise" ("Hot Knife").

I want to write this and tell you how I've determined either that I have changed or that Fiona Apple has changed, and that's why I'm suddenly obsessive about this record despite the same thing never happening with her celebrated earlier recordings, and I don't particularly want to give the illusion of jumping on some sort of a bandwagon out of fashion, not that I'd really give a shit about doing that. But unfortunately, any indication either way about that is going to be inconclusive, because that will require a new and unprejudiced reappraisal of the first three (three and a half?) records, and I simply don't want to wait six weeks to post this. Is it sufficient if I tell you I'm anxious now to go back and try again? Is it sufficient to tell you I'm falling completely in love with this album? That's what matters, really.

Where am I attacked most directly? It's not so much the plinking music hall persuasions, which are there at center stage from note one, and I can't even be sure if it's the feeling of a certain surrender of control that's both honest and highly affected -- call it a careful, uncontrolled control -- but I know that Apple is dramatic, and that excites me. She both knows when to reveal those throaty powerful choruses, when to play her own weaknesses ("Valentine"), when to pick up speed on the keys and lay down some devious hook, and sounds genuinely surprised when any of these things happen. Okay, maybe it is music hall again. Performance is not the poorest way to discover oneself, particularly when it seems as though our participation is by design, a direct communication.

It's early in my relationship with all this, of course; I can't yet tell you what in a year will mean the most to me about the ruthless rambling on "Jonathan" or resigned, intimate, complex concoctions like "Periphery" and "Werewolf," but I know that there is depth and intrigue there that I cannot yet process, and this again is something that's alluring to me. Perhaps that's the straight line here from Machine and When the Pawn...; it certainly is a feeling that I associate with Apple above most others. But it endears a more serious attachment here because the things that are immediate, including bits and pieces of those cuts but moreover a run of devastating material toward the end, have the kind of rapturous beauty and command -- command, again, even of weaknesses -- that make an indestructible, lifelong relationship of performer and follower. Apple's most easily likened to someone like Leonard Cohen, whose humiliations and excesses seem to enhance her art, whose air of mystery and strangeness is enchanting but seems felt and frustrated, never a put-on.

What are the big showpieces here? First is "Left Alone," a swirling, almost atonal rhythmic track with Apple's most snarling and soulful vocal laid atop it. But the run of three tracks that close Idler Wheel are what convinced me immediately that there was more here for me than I could quickly discern. "Regret" is just the prelude, its chaos a storm contained, but the "Cecilia" revision "Anything We Want" is something else -- that yearning crack when she says that about finding some time alone! -- and "Hot Knife," well, it's the incongruous surreal sort of weightless masterwork you dream about, some bizarro Andrews Sisters slash Erykah Badu thing I don't even know what to do with, backwards and forwards and totally normal, a dead ripoff, but fully inside-out and new. It makes me positively giddy.

Fiona Apple's lengthy lapse between records, even if born of music-biz frustration, can only be described as a brilliant career move, which further proves how much the business has changed in just the last decade or two. Not very long ago, it was considered career suicide for mainstream acts like Peter Gabriel and Dire Straits to spend ten and six, respectively, years between studio albums. But in the interim since Extraordinary Machine, itself a publicity magnet thanks to its release controversies, Apple's internet base has grown exponentially, and the world has swarmed to her enigma, so that she's in a position whereby the things she chooses to do with her creative energies are nearly automatic Events. She can do most anything with such power -- I can't quite wrap my head around what she's done so far but I know it's an exceptional, intelligent, valuable album that I imagine is going to be even more important to me in the long run than I can presently detect.

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