"I'm a tulip in a cup," Fiona Apple snaps on her stark, unnerving new album. "I stand no chance of growing up." But she already has. As a teenager, Apple got over by presenting herself as a sensitive and vulnerable ingenue--a sort of beta version of Adele. Like the current moment's young, smoldering singer-songwriter-pianist, Apple wasn't yet out of her teens when her debut album (1996's Tidal) appeared. Her breakthrough hit, "Criminal," smartly inverted the lurid innocent-girl-led-astray clichs that its video embraced. But manic pixie dream girls eventually become manic-depressive pixilated women. Over the past decade and a half, Apple's music has gotten sharper and sourer, and she's disappeared from the public eye for years at a time, into what her new songs suggest were some very dark places.
The title of the album, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do, is an Apple original, though it sounds as if it could have been excerpted from Alexander Pope's lost BDSM epic. It's where most of her new record's excess seems to have clustered too. Where her previous album, 2005's Extraordinary Machine, robed her mannered, fluttery alto in elaborate arrangements, The Idler Wheel leaves it shivering in rags. Besides Apple's singing and stabbing at a tinny piano, these recordings feature her co-producer Charley Drayton's muted percussion, occasional boots-in-mud loops, arrhythmic sound effects and not much else.
Apple's lyrics and performances sketch out a terrifying psychological state: resentful, helpless desperation for affection, coming from a character who conceives of love as something that one person does to another. "Valentine" is as passively masochistic a come-on as anyone's ever written ("While you were watching someone else/ I stared at you and cut myself"). "Left Alone" begins with a recollection of the days when, as she puts it, "I was still a dewy petal rather than a moribund slut." (The Idler Wheel often dips into the imagery and language of idealized childhood--most songwriters wouldn't use the word tummy in the same line as calcify.) She gives herself a hard time about her cravings too: "Seek! Me! Out! Look at look at look at look at me!" Apple barks in "Daredevil," so hard that her voice goes hoarse.
The persona isn't exactly healthy, but it's not Amy Winehouse--style self-destruction for entertainment's sake, either. Apple has always been good at finding the power in discomfort: the album's first single, "Every Single Night," is a feathers-and-bricks lullaby about being tormented by intrusive thoughts, and the breakup scenarios of a lot of these songs give her plenty of nerves to jab at. The only ex she mentions by name is novelist Jonathan Ames--the song "Jonathan" is genuinely compassionate--but whoever inspired Apple's torrential disgust in "Regret" should probably hang his head forever.