Let’s begin with the personal. My adolescence, as it relates to music, was a totalitarian regime of rap. My ignorance and fear of other genres of music, strongly tied to race and identity, deflected other styles of music from my ears like Mutumbo in his prime. Before the early pieces of neo-soul and the Soulquarians began to expand my emotional palette; or before Jazz engulfed my mind and spirit; and before rock, old and new, dominated my playlists near the middle of the aughts; two artists broke through that regime: Rage and Fiona Apple; what friends and family were quick to call that “white people shit”. Through two long and serious relationships, college, changes in identity and personality, and going from broke to professional, Fiona’s music has accompanied my travels. I never bothered with the “she crazy” and “weird” narratives of Fiona’s artistry. It always rang so empty, tied to social constructions that aim to constantly discredit women who not only speak freely and openly about their lives and ideas, but who don’t fit into nice little boxes of whores and virgins to be wifed-up or objectified.
On her fourth album in 16 years, Fiona continues the process of evolving her craft as a writer and musician to shed the last remnants of an image and sound tied to the industry’s idea of who she was. The Idler Wheel… is a bare and nude album: bare in its instrumentation and nude in its lyricism. Fiona and co-producer Charley Drayton (her tour drummer) strip Fiona’s voice of all the ornamentation that defined her earlier work: sounds rooted in jazz and blues, with atmospheres of rock, and high-end engineering and mix-downs. The tone of the vaudeville cabaret of her previous album Extraordinary Machine is what is left to dance around our minds slightly sullen in lace underwear and a fly T. The minimal, but ornate, production allows us to be swallowed up by Fiona’s pen game and voice. On this ten-song set Fiona’s voice quivers, shakes, soars, whispers, sooths and seduces. It sounds like the monsters of our childhood and the serene guides of our personal enlightenments.
Early in the album the swinging “Valentine” moves form morose to sanguine as Fiona describes her school girl like gaze and crush on a man she cannot work the nerve to speak to. Her strident piano playing sits atop faint percussions to mirror her varying but bottled up emotions. Later on “Periphery”, Fiona inverts the meaning of the word as she describes her past lover moving on with a new love and life, while she jealously watches from a distance. The song is ironically a joyous romp, brought together by a sample of walking shoes and the sound of Velcro being pulled apart, as Fiona’s piano damn near mocks the details of her words. It’s a clever and fun juxtaposition of word and sound. Arguably though, the album’s most powerful moment is the stark revelation of “Regret”. In the song, Fiona speaks not to the regret of losing “the one”, but the regret of allowing another person to dehumanize and devalue her existence. Above a laboring drum loop and sparse notes, Fiona literally roars out the visceral chorus “I ran out of white doves’ feathers / to soak up the hot piss that comes from your mouth”. It’s a defiant “yeah muthafucka you almost broke me, but I’m still standing” piece of music.
So whether it’s the upbeat eroticism of “Anything We Want”, the jazzy “Left Alone”, or the closing mantra of “Hot Knife”, Fiona moves through her hushed musical dynamism like an adult artist in complete control of her craft and vision. Fiona’s music has always been honest and raw, but here it is direct and concise to be her most complete work, and possibly best. Also while The Idler Wheel… may at first seem anachronistic in a world ensconced by varying forms of electronic music, and vapid voice contest shows that manufacture soul and personality, it actually borders on the avant with its rapacious humanity and deceiving simplicity. Vivid imagery lingers with the quite giant sounds of the instruments that tie together experiences and help resolve disorienting emotions. This is Fiona’s latest testament and it cuts to through the soul like butter for those of us who move beyond romanticism and indulge the personal truth and beauty of the hideous.