A complex and rewarding effort from the confessional singer-songwriter
Over three startling albums (1996’s ‘Tidal’, 1999’s ‘When The Pawn…’ and 2005’s ‘Extraordinary Machine’), Fiona Apple’s sophisticated neuroses became emblematic of a very American end-of-the-century angst. Teaming a confessional sensibility with a dramatic edge, the New Yorker’s seemingly endless well of demons to be exorcised transcended the usual ’90s singer/songwriter clichés thanks to jaw-dropping levels of lyrical and musical prowess. Whether she was sharing details about a masochistic power struggle (‘Not About Love’, ‘Shadowboxer’), contemplating the abuse she suffered as a child (‘Sullen Girl’) or seemingly reflecting on her role as enfant terrible of the Lilith Fair set (‘Limp’), Apple’s songs had the dangerous, addictive quality of watching a car crash in slow motion. Now, after seven years, she’s finally back.
But where does an artist who was once the poster girl for adolescent naval-gazing go when she has turned 34, and presumably grown out of adolescent naval gazing? The answer lies somewhere left of where you’d expect. Her fourth and absurdly titled album is a complex beast, with a coal-black message of bleakness, but an execution that’s both beautiful and unexpected. Lyrically, ‘The Idler…’ finds Apple as wonderfully conflicted as ever, filled with the need to “feel everything” (according to opener ‘Every Single Night’). Almost two decades after she began, and in a voice that’s now more ‘throaty sage’ than ‘bird-like alto’, we are no closer to a resolution.
Those themes that have repeated throughout her career – the triple bullets of low self-esteem, uncaring partners and disillusionment – still stoke her creative fire. And yet, unlike her previous albums, the 10 songs here are soaked in a sense of grown-up disappointment; we’re in a place of adult emotional inertia, trapped by chains of repetition that we’re all tethered to despite our best intentions. The calcified emotions on tracks like ‘Left Alone’ (where Apple calls herself a “[i]moribund slut[/i]”) and ‘Valentine’ (where the masochistic theme rears its head again on lyrics like “[i]While you were watching someone else/I stared at myself and cut myself/It’s all I’ll do ’cos I’m not free/A fugitive too dull to flee[/i]”) have a nihilistic pang to them.
And as bald and bleak as these cul-de-sacs of lyrical desperation may be, the flicker of hope shines in the form of the music that accompanies them. Vaudeville rhythms collide with tribalistic harmonies and chalky jazz creating awesome crescendos. Closer ‘Hot Knife’, which pairs a singular cymbal loop with a series of Dirty Projector-like harmonies (with cabaret singer Maude Maggart), is particularly unforgettable. The tension created by the lyrics and music is wonderful and uneasy, ensuring that ‘The Idler…’ is endlessly fascinating and unlike anything else you’re likely to hear this year.