"These ideas of mine / percolate the mind," Fiona Apple sings in "Every Single Night," the song that opens her 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. Some people are going to listen to the entire record and come away with the feeling that the percolation in Apple's mind has bubbled over like a coffee pot left on a stove too long. But for me and perhaps for you, Apple's bubbling thoughts, words and music are thrilling — eager and direct, heedless about being judged or misunderstood.
The Idler Wheel is primarily a collaboration between Apple and percussionist/co-producer Charley Drayton. The clattering sounds that form the spine of many melodies here are made by everything from drums to pebbles tossed down a garbage chute. The contrast between Apple's moist, enveloping confessional lyrics and the dry, sometimes harsh music is often wonderfully stark and dramatic.
It's easy to get the idea that socializing with Fiona Apple is no small commitment. As the vehement piano playing and vocal in "Valentine" suggest, when she's on your side, she can be a tad obsessive — that's part of what I take away from a chorus that goes, "I root for you, I love you, you you you you." And sharing a meal might become an endurance test when she reveals, "I made it to a dinner date / My teardrops seasoned every plate." I mean it as a compliment to say that Apple is working in the literary tradition of "the difficult woman," closing in on Virginia Woolf and already superior to Sylvia Plath. Apple's achievement is to both indulge in melodrama and to isolate the hard truths behind her extravagant emotions. I was never, not for a moment, put off by Apple's constant fingering of her feelings, because she describes them with such vigorous music and in such rigorous rhyme.
The vocals on The Idler's Wheel demonstrate a striking range, from jazzy croon to blues howl to pop conversational. It's a measure of Apple's artistry that she's labored so intensively to give the sustained impression that she's alone in a room. She's listening to the sounds in her head, describing them and the images and emotions they inspire. As intense as she is, she's awfully good company.
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