"Nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key," sings Fiona Apple in her swoon-worthy contralto on the remarkable "Werewolf." It's true. As she proves again on her long-awaited new album, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do, things can still be beautiful even when they are sad. Relationships can still be valuable, even when they are broken. And most importantly, an artist can still be essential even when she unravels.
With the release of The Idler Wheel an epic seven years after her previous effort Extraordinary Machine, Apple has reminded the world that she is peerless. Her songs are immediate, vicious and powerful — no one else sounds like this. But with the return of the music, we also get the return of the artist to the public eye, and this time that reintroduction seems particularly fraught. Of course there are those music fans who have no trouble divorcing the person from the work. They see only the artifact for its singular beauty, and feel no urge to ponder the life and intention of the maker. But then there are those of us who can't resist the question: Does the fact that this gorgeous, transcendent blessing of an album comes from a confused and scattered mind make it less remarkable? Or more?
In the past couple of months, Apple has emerged from her self-imposed exile, touring and granting interviews to a select few. (The Scene was not included, but instead was sent a link to a lengthy profile in The New York Times.) In this onslaught of media coverage, a portrait has emerged of a deeply disturbed woman. Whether she is telling the Times about walking up and down a hill in her neighborhood for eight hours a day until she lost the ability to walk, or taking a New York magazine writer into her home for hours of drugs, music and eerily intense conversation ("It was late. The music had stopped. I asked her, I don't entirely know why, to ask me something. She asked me about one of the most intimate experiences of my life. I told her the truth." Cue hugging), the line between artistic eccentricity and madness seems hazier than ever.
And then you have this record, and these songs, and you know that Apple is a genius, and that the result of all that inner turmoil and dysfunction is art. Even more fascinating, her particular breed of emotional mayhem does not seem to be the sort that people flee — instead they want to crawl inside and explore. They want to schedule long follow-up phone calls. And travel across the country to walk her dog. It's the very definition of charisma.
We listeners know it well too — that lunatic magnetism. It has always been there, hiding just below the surface of Apple's songs. The key irony is the pristine nature of that surface: This is music that's easy to listen to. Pretty, even. The Idler Wheel ... is wonderfully taut and sparely produced. It relies on the tension between silence and sound, between croon and howl, between deliberation and mayhem. There is no better example than the first track, "Every Single Night," which opens with a pretty chime and a tender vocal. By the time Apple is whooping like a warrior, that softness is revealed as an exquisite mask. If many artists put their oddest, most exposed selves into their music, Apple's controlled, carefully designed songs instead seem like a distillation — something relatively clean and digestible out of apparent chaos.
This extends to her lyrics, which are often bracingly straightforward. On "Daredevil," which builds from a clever, bouncy jaunt into a cataclysm, she sings, "Don't let me ruin me / I may need a chaperone." And at the raw crescendo, she pleads, "See me, look at, me, me, me / I'm all the fishes in the sea." On "Left Alone," she asks, "How can I ask anyone to love me / when all I do is beg to be left alone?" The aforementioned "Werewolf" is also packed with these emotional wallops, as when she admits, "We can still support each other / All we gotta do is avoid each other." And of course all those lines are only fully realized when delivered in her marvel of a voice — sultry, rich, rangy and effortless.
Then there's the album closer "Hot Knife," an intriguing little number with a real sense of whimsy ("If I'm butter / then he's a hot knife") and a rhythmic, layered palette. It's an appropriately manic way to close Idler Wheel and the type of tune you'll find yourself singing in the shower. It's also smart, strange and irresistible. It might even make you smile. For all her darkness and anxiety, all her skill with soul-crushing ballads and laser-like emotions, Apple chose not to end this album in a minor key.