My only experiences with Fiona Apple before listening to this album last summer include a fascination with the moody “Never Is a Promise” in my high school days, a mild amusement at her arrest in Texas last summer for possession of this thing they call hashish, as well as for her rant about the way she was treated in Hudspeth County Jail, and a disgust for her video for “Criminal”, which I can’t link to out of propriety. Just trust me, it’s creepy and gross in an almost-nude 19-year-old sort of way. And I never want to see it again. So my impression of Fiona Apple was mixed, to say the least. From my vantage point, she seemed neurotic, though I didn’t even know what that word technically meant till about an hour ago. Turns out it’s a medical term for a group of mental disorders that manifest as distress, but generally in a way that isn’t unacceptable to society. It’s debatable whether Apple’s actions are acceptable to society (Sierra Blanca, Texas would take a firm stance), but I think we can all agree that Fiona Apple at least fits the definition of quirky.
Her music on The Idler Wheel… certainly does. “Criminal” saw major airplay on VH1 and MTV back in the ‘90s, but mainstream pop wouldn’t know what to do with her today. The defining line of the album comes from its best song, “Werewolf”: “Nothing wrong when a song ends in the minor key.” These songs are decidedly unsettling from beginning to end. Album opener “Every Single Night” sounds almost vaudevillian, but it eschews big melody for chord progressions that are almost disturbing, fitting with the lyrics about “the flight / of little wings of white-flamed / butterflies in my brain”. On “Werewolf”, little kids screaming on a playground come out of nowhere. And “Hot Knife” features the titular utensil and a pad of butter as a metaphor for Fiona Apple and her significant other, which is less a masochistic analogy than an innocently passionate one. It’s the one song that can truly be called an earworm. But an uncomfortable earworm.
If I’m associating The Idler Wheel… with discomfort in your brain, keep in mind that I couldn’t stop listening to it this summer. Somehow, Apple made one of the most aurally disturbing albums of the year also one of the most listenable. Don’t be surprised by the dark sexual tones here; this is the woman who’s dated Jonathan Ames, Paul Thomas Anderson (Have you seen Magnolia? Dude is messed up.), and freaking David Blaine. But there’s nothing explicit; really, the album is too earnest to slip into impurity. She’s weird, but Apple is nothing if not relatable. And thank goodness. I’ve realized as I’ve listened to it over and over that as weird as I think she is, there are emotions she expresses in every song that I’ve felt at some point in my life. It’s a great record because it’s compulsively listenable, but also because it makes the quirky seem less different from me. I need that; I need to be reminded that I’m not as cool as I think I am.