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On Fiona Apple’s “Idler Wheel”

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Fiona Apple. For years the singer’s name alone has summoned a myriad of images and memories in the minds of music fans and pop culture enthusiasts alike. Her youth, bolstered by her musical and lyrical strength, made for an easy introduction to the mainstream in the ’90s, landing her deep in the midst of a landscape populated by Puffys, Missys, and Verves. ” I’ve been a bad, bad girl / I’ve been careless with a delicate man,” she moaned in “Criminal,” the third single from her debut album Tidal. The track remains her most commercially successful, and is actually the only single of Fiona’s to hit the Billboard 200 (and her only song to chart in the States aside from “Fast As You Can” which landed on the Alternative Songs chart in 1999). The Mark Romanek-directed video incited criticisms for overly-sexualizing the then 20 year old, leading The New Yorker to famously describe her as “looking like an underfed Calvin Klein model.” Since her start there’s been a constant marketing tug, playing her beauty to offset her eccentricities. She was never goth. She was never coffee-shop. She was young. She was tough to market. She was Fiona Apple.

Just as “Criminal” remains tied to the singer (made that much more humorous when learning that it was written in under an hour at the encouragement of her label), so too are numerous other factoids and historical landmarks that continue to litter profiles, reviews, and articles long after they first seemed relevant. She’s pretty, yes, but also damaged. She’s peculiar, and was once romantically tied to the similarly misunderstood illusionist David Blaine. She’s smart, but her 1997 MTV VMA “This world is bullshit … And you shouldn’t model your life about what you think that we think is cool and what we’re wearing and what we’re saying and everything. Go with yourself” speech continues to outshine her. There was the (retrospectively misguided) “Free Fiona” bid in 2004 that found fans campaigning to encourage Epic Records to release her third album, Extraordinary Machine, “which the label deemed not sufficiently commercial enough to justify the expense of putting it out.” And what story of Fiona Apple would be complete without mentioning the “several instances of her leaving the stage mid-performance.” “These moments,” writes Sasha Friere-Jones, “have become to Apple as bat-biting has been to Ozzy Osbourne — dramatic anecdotes that play well.”

Even now, her “eccentricities” are blown out of proportion (a slew of articles emphasize her technological reservations, recycling the same “this whole Google thing” quote), and her OCD is given heavy attention (on Marc Maron’s WTF Podcast they discussed how her eating disorder — see: “underfed Calvin Klein model” — has more to do with foods not being the right color for the moment, or coordinating with a shape that’s dictated in her mind prior to being hungry, leaving her physically unable to eat). Even with the release of her new album, label drama continues to find its place in the singer’s mythos: Sony Records was between presidents when it was being completed, leaving it on the shelf as “her manager felt it would be dangerous to submit an album when the label was in such flux.” This history, it seems, is tied to the singer as much as the songs are that were written by a different person, drawing from a different perspective, representing someone who no longer exists. All of this is to underscore the detrimental angle of the process: repeating someone’s personal history to them so frequently makes it hard for them to escape it and carve out a new direction or path for as new person they’ve become. “At the moment she seems… hyper-alive,” reflected Nitsuh Abebe in March, reacting to Fiona Apple’s public rebirth at this year’s SXSW festival. “Working at a level of intensity that is rare and generally so temporary that you just have to be glad you got a look at it.” Following this public reemergence was the release of her fourth album in June, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do.

Pitchfork immediately put its mammoth weight behind the release, slapping it with a rarely seen 9.0 rating (and, of course, the Best New Music distinction), adding “Unguarded honesty doesn’t go out of style.” The album has been called “Something like the wind, howling through a canyon that, over time, has been opened a mile wide by our fury and our fury’s neglect,” with Fiona’s voice bearing “rough edges [that] she refuses to sand down — and in fact, on this album, often accentuates.” It’s not just that the album merely exhibits a certain raw vocal quality or takes on monumental abstract feelings, but that The Idler Wheel confronts Fiona’s ongoing mental health struggles, her battles with depression, and her self-destructive safe-zone, presenting them all under the larger banner of a well-crafted set of songs. Love and relationships are in there, too, but the album finds the singer going beyond “textbook teenage girl stuff,” with the singer reflecting on a longing for humanity in her life, not merely companionship. Not bad for an eccentric.

The balance has always seemed delicate. One misplaced step to the right or left of the mark and Fiona might crumble into an existence of self-imposed isolation, alienating herself from family and friends as the days turn into years of seclusion. Or at least that’s how it appeared when she was younger, when we were younger. Whether that version of her existed or not is history, but now the singer seems slightly more impenetrable to the chaos, if only because of her complete lack of attention to what’s not inside her bubble. Marc Maron continued on the podcast interview, speaking to her maturity as the overcoming of a vulnerability that she has: one that people continue to poke at despite it being at the crux of her creation. This, I feel, is like continually bringing up that she was raped when she was 13 (I’m sorry for bringing that up) in order to somehow make sense of the music she’s creating in her mid-thirties. “I thought I was a total victim trying to look strong,” she confessed to Black Book Magazine. “Always the victim of self, seeking sympathy for the craziness that I can’t control.” “It’s not a mistake that the one word Apple repeats and distorts and plays with is ‘brain’,” adds Sasha Frere-Jones. “That’s where she lives, and she’s finally decided to call it home.” Yes, emotions still exist… how can they not?! But now she’s caddying those emotions for a different version of herself, someone swinging with a more confident stroke, exhibiting a craftiness to pull from the past only when it’s really necessary to do so.

Which isn’t to say that depression has passed — as if it even could — it’s just changed. “I’m a tulip in a cup / I stand no chance of growing up,” she sings in “Valentine,” recognizing the resiliency of her foe. Moments into the album’s first track, “Every Single Night,” Fiona addresses the struggle as it continues to burden her, speaking to its pending capacity to snowball out of control. “These ideas of mine / Percolate the mind / Trickle down the spine / Swarm the belly, swelling to a blaze.” At times she sounds like her mind is becoming too much for her to bear (“The ants weigh more than the elephants / Nothing, nothing is manageable” in “Left Alone”) while at others she seems on the cusp of enlightenment (“I just want to feel everything” in “Every Single Night”). But while all of this is going on there isn’t an overwhelming sense of struggle. Instead she does appear that she’s becoming more comfortable with the realities her mind presents. And even more, as songs like “Periphery” suggest, that she hardly feels like she’s the eccentric and abnormal crazy person that she’s reminded of at every media turn. Even with 7500 word profiles outlining her as a pothead insomniac with a penchant for the drink, it’s hard to conclude that she’s really the person she’s been made out to be. Which is comforting, because are any of us the people that we’re made out to be?

There is a perverted sense of normalcy that develops in the mind of a depressive, and as someone who can empathize with the words that detail Fiona’s struggle in “Every Single Night” I can attest to their validity. “Every single night’s alright / Every single night’s a fight / And every single fight’s alright with my brain.” There’s a constant push and pull here, but even in songs like “Daredevil” where she warns “I don’t feel anything until I smash it up,” there remains a sense of control.

The eternal attachment between singer/songwriters and lyrics about love and romance has been so thoroughly milked dry that the thought alone leaves me yearning an eardrum shattering shot to the brain from Slayer. Fortunately, that’s never really been Fiona’s thing, and in the case of The Idler Wheel, the notion of love isn’t exclusive to romantic ideals, or even romance at all. Love here is about understanding people, who they are, what they need, and consequently what they don’t need. Therein lies what might be the most heartbreaking aspect of her lyrics on the album.

When it comes down to it, all I think I know about Fiona Apple comes from her music, interviews, and video clips. Which is to say that I really don’t know a goddamn thing. Still, I take away a sense that she is the sort of person who becomes oblivious to their own issues in a friend’s time of need. She seems like the type of person who would kick you in the ass when you need it, telling you to get your shit in order even though her own shit might be hanging together by its last thread. All at once, the one-sidedness of “Regret” seems to preach the validity of my imagined Fiona Apple, speaking to the cruelness of an ex’s manipulative dysfunction. And as other songs reveal, what most catches the ear isn’t the betrayal of her feelings, by others or even by herself, but her concessions that she’s not the Perfect Person for whoever He is.

“Fiona Apple has always been in the process of breaking up,” adds Frere-Jones. “Usually preemptively — before you can ask, she will provide a list of reasons not to love her.” Not unlike the subject of depression, relationships have a strange duality within The Idler Wheel, with Fiona longing yet leaving, seeking yet shedding. “How can I ask anyone to love me / When all I do is beg to be left alone?” she cries out in “Left Alone.” She relents that He might be better off without her in “Jonathan” (“Jonathan, anything and anyone that you have done / Has got to be alright with me / If she’s part of the reason you are how you are / She’s alright with me”) but stands confident in “Hot Knife” (“If I get a chance, I’m gonna show him that / He’s never gonna need another, never need another”). She removes herself from fairy tale in “Werewolf” (“But we can still support each other / All we gotta do’s avoid each other”) but tragically bleeds sadness in “Valentine” (“I made it to a dinner date / My teardrops seasoned every plate”). If there’s a line that might best represent what she seems to crave though, it might be in “Daredevil” when she sings “And all I want’s a confidante / To help me laugh it off.” This goes beyond “LiveJournal stuff.”

Not only does intimacy not sooth her (“And I can love the same man, in the same bed, in the same city / But not in the same room, it’s a pity” in “Left Alone”) but in life outside of song she seems overtaken by the need for simple companionship. This, again, is something I can identify with. When away from her home, and her dog, she found a touring friend in a goldfish to keep her company, for example, but still there’s a deeper longing here that stems from year after year of admitted loneliness. “She believed that sharing her story — all of her story — would also make herself feel better,” explains Dan Lee. “It did not.” “I genuinely, naïvely thought that I was going to put out a record and that was going to make me have friends,” continued Fiona in her Black Book interview. “I expected to give it to people and they would understand me.” They did not. But there’s a connection that weaves between everything, the depression, the love, the romance, and the loneliness: the music. “Now, at my lowest moments, I think of people who come to shows,” said the singer in an interview with Pitchfork. “I still get very sad and sometimes I feel like I have no friends, but when that happens now, I’ll think of people whose names or faces I don’t know — they’re my friends and they love me. I’ve got them. It really does save me. I still feel awkward, but that’s the one thing I can grab onto at my lowest points.”

With the understanding then that it’s the music that helps Fiona maintain a balance in her life, it’s no surprise that the actual music on The Idler Wheel speaks with such boldness. “It’s a meal beyond gourmet,” adds David Williams, a commentor on NPR’s First Listen. “These songs aren’t catchy — but after a few listens, they can become something more permanently listenable than ‘catchy’ ever could be.” Fiona’s alluded to it in the past, saying that even when she’d feel ridiculed that it was never actually for her music, but on a critical level it’s tough to find much of anything on The Idler Wheel to bicker about, musically-speaking. That being said, Enio Chiola was able to do so in his Pop Matters review of the album. Referring to “Jonathan” and “Left Alone,” he writes “Both tracks sound like they’re super artistic, reminiscent of jazz trios, and they should totally be loved for their creative conjuncture of jazz and pop — but really, they’re both far too indulgent to penetrate.” Continuing, “This is what ultimately plagues the album from achieving the brilliance that it purports.” Strong words made that much more flaccid as the arbiter of taste would later hang his own argument in the comments by calling the album “simply inaccessible — which makes it disappointing.” As Fiona sings in “Periphery,” “I don’t appreciate people who don’t appreciate.”

Jokes aside, all throughout the album the sound has been masterfully crafted, and without having been a past fanatic The Idler Wheel moves me in a way that her other albums could not. Be it the field recording approach to “Jonathan,” picking up sounds of a bottle-making factory to use for the song, the sounds of children playing on “Werewolf,” or the multi-tracked vocals of her and her sister weaving between each another on “Hot Knife” (which Sasha Frere-Jones hits on the nose, calling them “the least commercial barbershop quartet ever“), each track boasts something unique and special. There’s the swaying pounce of “Every Single Night,” the raw wailing of “Daredevil” and “Regret,” the downhill, near-out of control sound of “Left Alone,” and the rumbling bounce of “Periphery.” When I first listened to the album months back I immediately jumped to Facebook to post a reaction, telling friends that “I recognize now that I’m not going to be able to listen to that too often for fear that its richness spoils my appetite for other music.” As hyperbolic as that might sound, it’s still true. Not that my list of favorite piano players is a deep one, but Fiona might be my favorite piano player based on The Idler Wheel alone. Her ability to combine such a nimble and unique mind for sound helps create an atmosphere perfectly ripe for the lyrics which accompany each track. And I’ve already gone on long enough, adding personal context to those lyrics to help wring my own meaning from the album, so it’s probably best to move on there.

“I don’t think I’ll ever have an idea of what I look like to the rest of the world,” continued Fiona in her Black Book interview. Self-perception aside, none of us can really understand exactly what we look like to the rest of the world. Who I am in your eyes is going to be different than who I am in my own mind, and who Fiona Apple is to you will be a different person than who Fiona Apple is to me. But in paying more attention this past year, a lot has changed in building this creation of personality in my mind.

Fiona Apple is not a delicate flower of instability. Playfully relating a story to Marc Maron, she told him how her family gets frustrated at her because she closes jars and bottles too tight. She’s constantly unaware of how intense she actually is. She’s the kind of person whose “resting face isn’t a smile” she joked. And when she appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon this past June her presence was exactly that: intense. Sure, “awkward” or “eccentric” might cover the gamut here, but speaking closer to what I saw was someone who couldn’t humanly stop emotion from gushing. She was excited to be there. Happy. And maybe a sense of social awkwardness got in the way of that translating as suave or sexy, leaving her unable to fluently tie stories into the context of conversation. Hell, I’ve been there, sitting backstage in life only to nervously forget the witty presentation I’d prepared in my mind, left stumbling through words and mumbling my way through a now-unrecognizable idea. I was never wearing a long black dress and matching black boots when I was doing it, but then again, who I am in your eyes is going to be different than who I am in my own mind.

Her performance later in the show carried with it a violent cadence which helped corral the uncertain movements that she carried during the interview. “Apple’s voice is an implausibly virtuosic instrument,” relates Helena Fitzgerald. “But the degree to which she demonstrates that virtuosity is also somehow childish, a kid who doesn’t know to use her inside voice in public.” I don’t know that it’s childish, maybe just child-like. Fitzgerald’s observation goes back to depression for me personally — the attitude, of why aren’t you beyond this yet? Why haven’t you, Fiona, learned to tame yourself, mold your passion and talent into something less “inaccessible”? Why are you still singing about this stuff? “This album feels current because it’s an album from ten years ago,” Fitzgerald later added, only for the imaginary bubble to burst: holy shit, look at just how much I have changed! Can’t you see inside of my mind? It’s all there. I’m different now!

A few years ago I wrote a meaningless review of Taylor Swift’s Speak Now, and quickly it was swarmed on by young fans, striking back as if I’d written the most vitriolic collection of words the Internet has ever seen. Taylor Swift is not, nor will she ever be, Fiona Apple, but in reading the media wave that followed The Idler Wheel‘s release I can at least see where her fans were coming from. I wasn’t making fun of how “white-bread” Swift was, in their eyes I was attacking them personally because she feels what they feel, her voice merely acting as an amplifier for their own teenage angst. Anyone misunderstanding Taylor Swift’s words are misunderstanding who I am! I feel like that here, like Fiona is somehow gathering words I’d never think to amass, placing them in such an order that makes me feel as though they are coming from my own soul rather than the speakers across the room.

You don’t want to live through this, per se, but there is something liberating about bearing witness to someone so unrepentantly fucked-up; she is the martyr-saint, crucifying herself so that we might live dramz-free.” That’s what separates us. When I was in high school I was really into the idea of having a “broken” girlfriend. Not because I’d be able to save her, or any other such silly delusion, but maybe because her outer representation might speak to something inside of me. Over the years that has changed almost wholly (now I want to be with someone who can level out the madness that boils inside me!), but somewhere in the middle is the Fiona Apple of today. After years of consuming a media diet that bullied me into pornographic fantasies of objectifying her as just a pretty singer that I’d like to have sex with, it feels like I can finally let go of digging her simply as one of the Top 5 Hottest Indie Rock Chicks (her not being “indie” or “rock” aside here), or appreciating her music because she’s this frail and vulnerable person that she’s made to be. Instead, the album broke a wall, leaving me appreciative of her music because it touches something of the frail and vulnerable person that I am. That brokenness that used to attract me now scares me off because I see it in myself now. I totes wish I could chillax and live a dramz-free life, but my mind doesn’t work that way.

On Late Night Fiona performed my favorite song on the album, “Anything We Want,” and as I watched and listened I started to cry, stopping only for a moment to take a note reading “and I started crying” (notes are a godsend for forgetful people). There’s something here that’s helping me work things out in my mind, and when she continues in the song adding “We started out sipping the water / And now we try to swallow the wave,” the words take on a different meaning every time I hear them, each time empathizing with me, telling me that I’m not as far out there as I think I am. Instead, The Idler Wheel leaves me feeling like I’m not out on the fringes of life looking in, but that I’m on the inside with Fiona looking out onto all the madness, both of us now content that all we have to deal with are our own minds. And even if we’re wrong, and we’re the ones on the outside, so be it, because as she sings in the song, “Oh, the periphery / They throw good parties there.”