7 years have gone by since the release of Extraordinary Machine, an album that itself was delayed when Apple wanted to scrap the first version, resulting in Epic records having a fit, Apple getting testy, and her deciding to keep the next one under tight wraps from everyone, label included. It was rumored to have been finished for 2 years before release - just delayed till a new label head was instated at Epic. So is The Idler Wheel worth the wait? Only in fits and starts.
For this album Fiona Apple linked up with touring percussionist Charley Drayton and fashioned a disc which is very low-key, full of tinkling pianos and whirling percussive backgrounds. It's a jarring departure from the layered soundscapes she used to create with Jon Brion on When The Pawn... and the first version of Extraordinary Machine. It suits her well in 2 places - at the start, and at the end. Opening track "Every Single Night" opens with spare chimes and no drums, letting her voice breathe, then gradually folds in a backdrop that lets her spin a tale of confusion and mayhem in her head that is her doing what she does best. On the last track "Hot Knife" she breaks off from the breakup musings and self-loathing to spin a spunky, upbeat yarn about the kind of man who can excite her. It's chaotic and fun, especially near the end when the overdubs create a swarm of multiple Apple-voices all singing in unison.
As for everything in between? It goes back and forth between passable and downright unlistenable. It is fine to make a "Difficult" song, but only if listening to that song brings some kind of rewarding experience. Most of what is in between offers little to no reward. "Left Alone" shows her letting the yowling take over, ruining anything resembling a well sung track. Yes, some of music's greats have employed a throaty yowl in their tunes, and I'm talking about people we all know CAN sing. Letting that go too far ends up with a voice sounding like a sick cat. It's especially disappointing since Apple has shown she has chops (truly, some of her best work is on her debut, when she was naught but a teenager.) This same trouble follows her throughout the album. She's either too un-hinged to sound in tune, or the songs just drill too deep inside her psyche to work. Yes, it's possible to wring good music out of emotional turmoil and the aftermath of that turmoil. It starts to get creepy if the balance between pouring your soul out and a slight bit of restraint is upset. She almost makes up for it on tracks like "Daredevil" which rides a brisk, 2-stepping beat which is catchy, but even in the lyrics almost perfectly defines what is wrong with this album. "Don't let me ruin me / I may need a chaperone" - anyone? It's a little too fitting.
Fiona Apple has 3 good albums under her belt before this, which have proven she knows how to create a good piece of work. The Idler Wheel is proof that talents are better expressed when her songs are given structure and her talents are channeled properly. Free-form skittering jazz-folk and totally unhinged lyrics+singing are not her friend, and this album proves it.