tongue-tied lightning


The Best Album of 2012?

Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (heretofore to be referred to as The Idler Wheel) is the first album of the year to really take hold of me and insist I surrender to it completely from the very start. There have been some excellent records released in 2011, don’t get me wrong. The new offerings from Andrew Bird, Beach House, of Montreal, The Shins, and The Walkmen all stand out, along with Jack White’s uncharacteristically personal Blunderbuss. However, The Idler Wheel inspires a feeling I haven’t felt since the opening bars of “Perth” first captivated me on Bon Iver’s self-titled 2011 release (one of about five 2011 records that remains in my regular rotation; about which, more at a later date.)

Aesthetically, The Idler Wheel represents a stark departure from her previous two Jon Brion produced outings (we’ll ignore the Mike Elizondo produced re-recording of Extraordinary Machine). In contrast to Brion’s baroque arrangements, the majority of the album consists of skeletal piano parts brought to life by innovative percussion (courtesy of Apple’s co-producer Charlie Drayton), occasionally opening up a little with the aid of minimal string arrangements, an upright bass, or an exquisitely placed field recording. “Jonathan,” “Periphery” and “Left Alone” feature Apple playing busier motifs – the latter features a hypnotic piano line that is continually falling back on itself, providing a feeling of constant movement that isn’t getting you anywhere –  but still rarely venturing into anything that could be described as polyphonic.

There are bits and pieces here that wouldn’t feel out of place on Apple’s earlier records. With more conventional drumming, “Anything We Want” would be classic Fiona Apple. The chorus of “Valentine” is also very distinct, going so far as to quote Extraordinary Machine’s “Get Him Back” while telling an ex-boyfriend “I watch you live to have my fun” (a theme that turns up on the very next track as “I like watchin’ you live” in “Jonathan.”) “Werewolf” is also vintage Fiona, overflowing with wit, the only uncharacteristic flourish present is a field recording of children screaming on a playground. “Hot Knife,” on the other hand, is unlike anything she’s recorded before, consisting solely of her singing while Drayton pounds away on timpani.

Stylistic choices aside, there is no mistaking The Idler Wheel for the work of anyone but Fiona Apple. Referring to one of her records as personal is merely stating the obvious but, if we set lyrical content aside, this may be her most personal musical statement. While previous producers preferred using juxtaposition; contrasting her revealing, occasionally ugly, lyrics with intricately beautiful musical accompaniments; Drayton reinforces the thematic content of the lyrics in the music itself. Piano lines stripped down to their very core, getting at the emotional truth in the chord progressions, backed by busy drumming the echoes the pitter-patter of an anxious heart. It’s rare that percussion serves as such an intrinsic part of an album’s mood.

With each subsequent addition to her catalog it becomes clearer that Fiona Apple is one of the defining talents of her time. These are merely first impressions regarding The Idler Wheel, so it’s clear it was worth the seven years Apple saw fit to make us wait. I’m confident it will continue to bear fruit for quite some time like the greatest albums always do. Hopefully her next album, whenever it makes its way to our ears, continues the trend.

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