Yes, that’s the name of the album.
Setting the record for Longest Title for Something, with spots 2-15 belonging exclusively to Fall Out Boy and Panic! at the Disco, Fiona Apple has delivered a complex but ultimately pleasing album with The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do. The only thing longer than the title of the album is the frequency at which Fiona releases them – this is only her fourth album in seventeen years. Which is not criticism by any stretch, for at the opposite end of this spectrum sits someone like Chris Brown, with several albums worth of material ready to go at any time. And if Fiona could simply cry “LOOK AT ME NOW!” and “Yeah” once, twice, or even 3x, then throw it on the radio and fart out an album to sell every year or two - well, then she would not be Fiona Apple at all.
In the real world where real people make real music, she occupies the same realm of music-ness in which other gifted vocalists with unique styles like Florence Welch and Amy Winehouse have stood. That being said, Apple’s 1996 insta-classic “Criminal” has remarkable mash-up potential with Winehouse’s “Rehab”. But this is neither here nor there.
What is here is The Idler Wheel, containing disjointed melodies, incredible vocals, and intricate love-tortured poetry. At first listen, there’s almost a stream-of-consciousness feel to the words, but closer inspection reveals well crafted intent. Like the lyrics within, most songs are difficult to understand on first listens; he who searches for straightforward progressions and instrumentation will be massively lost. “Every Single Night” and “Hot Knife,” which bookend the album, are perhaps the most melodic, but they’re far from predictable. Fiona channels Florence strongly in “Every Single Night” as she recants nightly episodes of mental anguish:
Every single night
I endure the flight
Of little wings of white flamed
Butterflies in my brain
These ideas of mine
Percolate the mind
Trickle down the spine
Swarm the belly swelling to a blaze
That’s where the pain comes in
Like a second skeleton
Trying to fit beneath the skin
Apple’s words cut sharply – not unlike hot knives through butter – throughout the album, and she punctuates them with superhuman vocal inflections. “Left Alone” is rife with personality, a jaded confessional seething with falsettos and clenched teeth, set to a schizophrenic rhythm with jazz overtones.
“Daredevil” and “Jonathan” do an amazing job of manufacturing genuine self deprecation out of some choice words, and “Werewolf” is a more pungent thematic addendum to Incubus’ “Oil and Water”. There’s an abundance of blood-and-wounds imagery that resurfaces throughout the album, and you could set this one next to Jack White’s Blunderbuss in the Awesome 2012 Albums Birthed From Problematic Romances file. Like White, Fiona Apple is bruised and bleeding from love, but in The Idler Wheel, she turns the magnifying glass inwards.
The instrumentation throughout largely serves as accoutrements to Apple’s singing, which is clearly the focal point of the album. Although The Idler Wheel is lyrically driven, the arrangements are sublimely creative and complement the words well. It takes several listens to really get into, but that’s a trademark of many historically good albums, and it’s more than worth it in the end. Fiona Apple is magnificently introspective and wildly impressive in her vocals – not only her range, but some of the tricks she shows off that really give The Idler Wheel its personality. If another seven years will yield an album as good as this one, then it’s well worth the wait.
(1) Every Single Night
(5) Left Alone