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Singer Fiona Apple is photographed at MTV studios in New York on Sept. 19, 2005. (JIM COOPER/AP)
Singer Fiona Apple is photographed at MTV studios in New York on Sept. 19, 2005. (JIM COOPER/AP)

MUSIC: DISC OF THE WEEK

Fiona Apple’s blunt poetry betrays a heart divided Add to ...

  • Title The Idler Wheel…
  • Artist Fiona Apple
  • Label Epic Records
  • Genre pop
  • Rating 3.5/4
  • Year 2012

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.

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