Artist: Fiona Apple
Album: The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
Fiona Apple’s new album is very childish.
The word “childish” is a divisive word, a dismissive word; to be called childish can be a smarting blow, an insult that seems to put its target in a low place. Yet there is power in childishness, and strength in it as well – there is innocence inside of it, and precociousness – and the petulance and raw emotion of a wounded child can strike more sincerely at the chords of the heart than the tantrum of an emotionally-constrained adult ever will. It is precisely this other, less explored side of childish that threads its way throughout her album, from the long rhyming title (The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do) to her vocals, and makes this collection of songs ultimately both endearing and hypnotic.
Each of the songs has a unique percussive introduction, from the xylophones of “Every Single Night” to the mechanized percussion that rhythmically begins “Jonathan”, which sounds rather like a photocopy machine. These playful beginnings are soon joined by piano, and inevitably the bewitching vocals of Fiona herself. Her emotions are exposed in every song – she sings part of “Jonathan” through clenched teeth, becoming petulant, and on “Valentine” recalls adoring and loving someone, ending with “you, you, you” each time, words that are clearly an irritated epithet. The vocals of “Regret” dissolve into deep, off-key shrieks that feel primal and naked. In “Periphery” the lyrics match her delivery perfectly as she exclaims “I don’t even like you anymore at all” – words that are clipped and biting, apropos of a playground friendship’s end.
While childish, the subjects of these songs are far from immature. Typical of Fiona Apple fare there are songs about strength and survival in the strange territory of the heart (“Valentine”, “Werewolf”), and songs about the pain inflicted there (“Left Alone”), but there are also songs about craving a sense of reality and complete understanding (“Every Single Night”) and even celebrations (“Anything We Want”, “Hot Knife”). Far from feeling like these songs are constrained in the past, there is so much playfulness bursting through – from the meandering piano that at times becomes theatrical and coy, with all the steady progression of a piano at a children’s stage play, to the vivid and tumbling lyrics that spill from a dreamlike space – these are songs that feel fresh, bright, and winning.
This is not a childlike place where happiness comes without pain, rather this is a childish one, where pain can draw a whimper and tempers result in angry red flares of emotion alongside the joy of playtime. This is an album where the listener has graciously been allowed to witness the naked workings of an artist’s heart and mind, and is encouraged to pick up whatever is lying around and bang out their own rhythm in turn.