The heart is a hunter and often lonely, to paraphrase the title of a book I’m pretty sure Fiona Apple has read. At any rate, she seems to live out that thought, or at least to sing it out whenever she makes a new record like this one, her first in seven years.
The full title is The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do. An idler wheel is an intermediary device that transfers rotation from one moving part to another, so we can guess that Apple sees value in a kind of patient passivity she doesn’t often show in her songs. But a whip has a stinging immediacy not shared by ropes that merely bind, which implies that intense direct action is the way to go.
In short, this album is the work of a self-consciously divided soul. Push and pull are the driving forces, and they often work simultaneously. “How can I ask anyone to love me, when all I do is beg to be left alone?” she sings in Left Alone. And yet she does go on asking, with all the tools of the hunter at hand and ready for use.
“I don’t feel anything till I smash it up,” she sings in Daredevil, but a moment later, she’s all about acceptance: “give me anything, and I’ll turn it into a gift.” The music is bony and sparse, but there’s a jaunty feel to its sinister dice-rolling. Apple’s entanglements with self and other are usually dark, but she sees humour there too. In her video for Every Single Night, she appears po-faced with a pneumatic rubber octopus on her head, while singing about being wracked by thoughts that seep through the brain and down to the belly. The dire imagery of the lyrics is balanced against the silliness of that tentacled wig.
None of these songs are like anyone else’s. Apple has her own melodic voice, which is rare these days, and she builds her songs without much care for the usual distinctions of verse, chorus and bridge. The album’s a bit heavy on waltz and “three-feel” meters, but Apple finds ways to twist them, throwing a kick into the rhythm of Periphery (for example) just where the words turn angry. She packs a lot into her blunt poetic lyrics.
The Idler Wheel… is more austere than the Jon Brion-assisted Extraordinary Machine of seven years ago. The songs are mostly backed by Apple’s pungently tuned piano, with a trickle of percussion and upright bass. These minimal forces bring her strong pop alto to the fore more than ever, and she flaunts its raw yet vulnerable qualities. Each word and note finds its right sound, pretty or not. Every Single Night spans the gamut, from a bold field-holler style to the wispy constrained tones of “I just want to feel everything,” sung as if a weight were crushing her chest.
These are the songs of a needy solitary, but in Hot Knife, Apple becomes a crowd, as her multiplied voices swirl up a grand counterpoint of overlapping melodies and texts. “I’m a hot knife, he’s a pat of butter,” she chants, over a rumbling drum beat. “I’m gonna show him that he’s never gonna need another.” He has been warned.
Fiona Apple plays Montreal’s Olympia Theatre on July 3, Toronto’s Sound Academy on July 4, and the Orpheum in Vancouver on July 24.
OTHER NEW RELEASES
When Flying Was Easy
Cookie Duster (Maple)
I think a lot of us believe that the world is just that much better a place with Broken Social Scene in it. But while that band idles, BSS co-founder Brendan Canning has revived his long dormant Cookie Duster, a big breeze of the 1990s and stylish electro charm. The vanilla-flavoured Jeen O’Brian handles some vocals; Canning does too. No Solo is a blissful, Verve-y psychedelic statement on community. On the whole, this is feel-good summer stuff and a less-cinematic Social Scene – smart party-rock for the magic people. I feel 15 years younger for having heard it all. Brad Wheeler
Live From The Underground (Def Jam/Universal)
What you know about the dirty south? If it starts and ends with the bootylicious videos you see on BET, then let Big K.R.I.T. school you. The Mississippi mixtape phenom is the kind of MC you can find in the strip club on Saturday night and in church on Sunday morning, and his LP debut ably spans the two solitudes. I Got This is a classic trunk-rattling anthem laced with K.R.I.T.’s molasses-thick twang masking his lyrical dexterity. When My Sub throws a left hook at the party vibe and drops us in more serious territory, the verses risk turning clumsy and pedantic. But his heart is in the right place, when it’s not up in the club. Dave Morris
Smashing Pumpkins (Universal)
“I’ll take you with me where I climb, in my mind – oh my mind.” Billy Corgan rises sky-high, a sherpa with a Marshall stack. Oceania, described in the press kit as an “album within an album,” is part of the Pumpkins’ 44-song work-in-progress Teargarden By Kaldidyscope. It bursts out with Quasar, a galloping, searing fuzz-punch from the past. We have Rush-like brawniness and Boston-inspired riffs. Pinwheels floats and serenely strums, and the title track is a sprawling multipart affair, with Renaissance touches. Unabashedly earnest and impassioned, with mystic and love-struck lyrical themes, Oceania swells in typically Pumpkin ways. B.W.