In the late 1990s a young female artist burst onto the aging and stale alt-rock scene. She had a chesty-jazz inspired voice (contrasting with the heady and weaker voices of the Joan Osbornes, Alanis Morrisettes and Jewels of the world). She was young and pretty. Her music was bold and surprising. And she may have been a little crazy.
Fiona Apple had the type of appeal that few artists do. Despite her youth, men of all ages lusted after her. Her looks aside, her attitude and music found as many female followers. (Embarrassingly now, I remember cajoling a girlfriend into talking about fantasizing about her.) Her intensity and sound were really unlike anything else at the time.
At the height of her early popularity, after the hits “Sleep to Dream”, “Shadow Boxer” and “Criminal”, Fiona Apple used her appearance at the MTV Music awards (where she was well-appreciated) to declare the world bullshit and to chide her fans for letting MTV do their thinking for them. What do we make of an MTV phenomenon shitting where she ate? Apple was bold, surely. But the common opinion was that she was crazy.
Her recording career since that golden moment hasn’t helped her reputation. Her debut was followed by 1999’s When the Pawn… (the full title of which was a poem of forty words or so), a decent but largely forgettable album. She followed that up with a hiatus and a long-awaited third album that was the subject of much rancor with her label over release and support.
Now, this could have easily turned into a Chinese Democracy type of story. But, in all honesty, it didn’t. Apple’s 2005 release Extraordinary Machine was well-received, sold well and even earned her some iTunes exclusives! (And, it is a very interesting and listenable album). Unfortunately, Apple retreated and went on another hiatus. She even recorded in secret!
Seven long years later, another album (The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do) with a title of excessive length has been released. And guess what? It is pretty darned good. For the past seven years, whatever else she has been up to, Apple has been making some beautiful, fascinating, and beguiling music. She is also not cheap with her art: there are 16 songs on the downloadable version of this album. But she may have been better served by some editing.
The album is on the whole a welcome respite from the radio-friendly fake jazz-pop of recent years. But even starting with that, it gives me fits in trying to name it. Is it jazz-pop? Is it progressive jazz-inspired piano rock? Perhaps trying to name what Apple’s music has become distracts to much from what it is.
On Extraordinary Machine, the surprise was the looser song structure, the nearly broadway-esque character of the music, and the lighter, less dour cast of the music altogether. From the 1990s, we knew Apple could sing and play the piano. The depth of her talent (and quirkiness) was readily more noticeable.
On this album, her voice is older and smokier from the beginning and her instrumentation is bolder throughout. She uses more head voice than chest voice now (but grunge and 90s was about baritone) and she is much more creative and surprising with her note choices—she is like an improvisational musician who suddenly stopped following preset patterns.
Altogether, the instrumentation of the album should be offered up as a textbook case in professional and smart production. No song is cluttered with noise; no noise seems misplaced. At times the jazz drums and jazzed chord voicings are clean; at others they are muddied and messy. But the sounds make sense for each moment. The transitions within the songs are surprising and jarring, yet without seeming chaotic or contrived.
Where the younger Apple offered us masterful renditions of pop-patterns, our modern Fiona seems unconcerned with offering the same polish and symmetry. As a result, the work is less faithful to the sacred shape of pop songs and more innovative The listener encounters loose and engaging song structures that at times flow back and forth from just piano and voice.
The album starts with just keyboard and voice on the first track “Every Single Night” accompanied by percussion placed sparingly. The drama in the song (apart from the chord voicings) comes from the variation in Apple’s voice from the mumbling nearly chanting of the verse—which at times trembles between the alto boldness of her earlier music and a lighter head voice, breathy and less sure—to a full-voiced roar with the chorus.
Fiona still growls and snarls, but she makes surprising transitions in the melody as she offers jazz intervals during chants where lesser singers would hold the same notes. It is contrast that makes the song memorable. She sings through her teeth the beginning of the chorus “every single night is a fight” only to open to her full-chest roar for the word “friends”. By the end of the song there is an irony to her closing plea “I just want to feel everything”—anyone listening to her music might be led to believe that she already has.
In fact, this confidence in her voice is part of what makes the album great in places and weak in others. In the second track, she starts out with staccato chord soundings over the clip of an old projector (or something like that) and sings with a haunting voice “I guess I just must be a daredevil / I don’t feel anything until I smash it up”. The sound is great; the sentiment not as much because this nice couplet turns into a choral declaration “I may need a chaperone”.
For this contrast, the album can be sublimely frustrating. But when Apple gets to the bridge and sings strong enough to show the lines and edges that have grown into her voice, she wins you back. There aren’t any other pop singers who so daringly and brazenly use their voices. Period.
But the question that hangs over the album (and over the artist I suspect) is whether or not she should be judged by the standards of pop singers, even those as blessed with stylish voices as Adele. By the third song, we still can’t answer the question: warm chords walk us into the song with a heart-beat percussion beat on a hand drum (or the face of a guitar). Does Fiona need a torch-song to gain attention? Even the pop/alt-rock maven Feist gives in to such need. But “Valentine” is honest, innovative, sparing with instrumentation, and pure beauty. Norah Jones sings crowd pleasing jazz-inspired pop—Apple seems to me to be crafting pop-inspired jazz. The difference means all the world.
In some of her bridges and turns-of-phrase Apple reminds me of songstresses of another generation like Linda Ronstadt or Carole King—but where they were clever and sometimes sweet, she is unforgiving to herself, her subjects, and at times her audience. Track four gives us a dissonant melody line over less spare percussion but when the chorus comes, there is no resolution. The song sounds interesting, but it is half-done. (Perhaps the point).
Just when she’s lost you, Apple comes roaring back with a track like “Left Alone” that starts with a several measure tom-tom drum solo. The tone remains dark, the intervals between notes somewhere between minor and a more muscular jazz that takes me back to earlier albums. Yet this syncopated drum and piano line is somewhere between fusion jazz and video-game music. Here Fiona’s lyrics and tone are closest to her earlier albums, but the sound of the song is something completely new. When she hits the high notes on the line “tears calcify” she slides off with an artful abandon the younger artist would never have dared (despite all her audacity).
The lyrics deserve mention too, but not for the same reasons. Apple does not seem to have learned that sometimes fewer words are better. Her earlier work is nearly terse compared to some of the lyrics on this album. At times, there are memorable and sweet combinations of sound and sense. Yet, at others, the words are just terrible:
I could liken you to a werewolf the way you left me for dead
But I admit that I provided a full moon
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
But you were such a super guy ’til the second you get a whiff of me
We are like a wishing well and a bolt of electricity
But we can still support each other, all we gotta do’s avoid each other
Nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key
Nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key
What kind of crime against good sense is the first couplet or the throw-away “super guy”? I actually like the repeated “Nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key ”, especially when combined with the sounds of the song and Apple’s tendency to do that very thing. I even like the problematic assertion of victimhood and the idea that separation of lovers is a type of mutual support. But still, I cannot get over the first verse.
But just when you think you can dismiss Apple as a lyricist, the eighth track starts with “’Member when we argued on the concept of regret? / You were an expert even then but not me, not yet”. The lyrics are almost perfectly fit to the sound—they hang over the sentiment and invite you to turn them over as she moves you through the conversation that ultimately turned into a disappointed relationship.
The most interesting song on the album? “Hot Knife” that begins with the repeated mantra “If I’m butter….then he’s a hot knife”. The madness ensues with repetition of the phrases, jazz tom-tom rolls, and choral interludes that turn the singer to a hot knife and the man to the pat of butter. The song is insane, senseless and channels jazz, blues and a smattering of swing (especially in the drum rolls and throaty growls of the vocals). By the multilayered a cappella end of the song, I forget any complaints I had about songs that came before.
By this point we realize that Fiona Apple doesn’t need torch songs because she’s lighting bonfires. This album lets us know that the unbridled spirit who declared the world bullshit is still there, but she lives with the playful but perfectionist artist who gave us Extraordinary Machine. Apple’s newest album is less whimsical, more contemplative and, on the whole, a more challenging listen.
The short of it is that the songs are not as bold and memorable at first listen as her first album, but they are deeper, more artful and more generous to multiple listens. The Idler Wheel… is not for the faint of heart. It is not radio friendly. And it is far from perfect. But is still one of the most interesting and surprising albums I have heard in a long time.