Fiona Apple’s 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, went up on NPR’s First Listen today, and we’ve spent the morning absorbing it. This is Apple’s first LP in seven years, and though she’s been comfortable talking about emotions since we first met her on Tidal in 1996, here she is at her rawest and most ruthless. These songs aren’t always pretty, with Apple twisting and shoving her alto into uncomfortable spaces. But she mixes the weathered rage in her voice with lots of wide-eyed instrumental plinks, bringing some playful levity to the songs.
The album doesn’t come out until June 19, but head to NPR for a listen, and read below for some initial thoughts on these tracks.
01. “Every Single Night”: Gentle baby-toy chimes sound the start, and Apple enters, dry-mouthed, her tongue sticking to the roof of her mouth. You can hear her cringing through the threat, “Brother, get back ’cause my breast’s gonna bust open,” like she’s imagining the feeling. Her shaky voice is like that of a superstitious, Wicca-practicing neighbor you only see at night, two eyes peering through dusty shutters.
02. “Daredevil”: Seriously, get this woman some water. Dry percussion flutters around like a fast-flying moth, zipping around Apple’s spacious room. She sits in the middle at a cobwebbed piano, banging on the bass clef notes. The songs so far aren’t anti-melody, but they’re a little more free-form. Getting the sense that this is a “just for fans” album. But no one really expects another Tidal anymore, right?
03. “Valentine”: Low heartbeat thump runs throughout, but bare piano chords cover the majority of the instrumental duties. “I root for you, I love you—you, you, you.” Apple is standing in the shadow of her relationship counterpart on this one, and she takes on two voices to convey her feelings. The first voice is the blunt, self-destructive one that makes you squirm—”I stared at you and cut myself”—while the second is more childlike—”I made it to a dinner date/My teardrops seasoned every plate.” A brief, distorted, tormented string section that comes toward the end feels like a peek into Apple’s brain.
04. “Jonathan”: Her song for ex-boyfriend Jonathan Ames. The background percussion sounds like it’s coming from an automaton or a steam engine waking up, and the piano is warm and rolling. Hearing that the subject is an ex might make you think that this would be a high-drama, bitch-slap of a song, but there’s nothing overtly hostile here in the lyrics. Just mention of trips to Coney Island and Apple’s insistence that she doesn’t want to talk about anything.
05. “Left Alone”: Ladies and gentlemen, Benny Goodman! OK, not quite big band, but the opening drum busts aren’t too far off from this. “How can I ask anyone to love me when all I do is beg to be left alone?” She might mean it to apply to her own relationships, but it’s a fair question to put to her career too, as she seems to be constantly grappling with hating the invasion of privacy but also wanting to put her work in front of people. This song finds Apple at her most fast-paced and frantic so far.
06. “Werewolf”: This is the kid noise song that she talked about with Pitchfork. There’s a fullness, and more of a traditional melody, to this song that isn’t found in the ones that precede it. It’s got more highs and lows in the range of the instruments, but it also shows Apple starting softer, hitting a vocal climax and then backing away from it, like a good storyteller, with the denouement being the repetition of, “Nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key.”
07. “Periphery”: Ten-second, military-style drumming starts it, drops out for piano thrumming but creeps back in as the song expands its layers. If “Werewolf” were more “normal,” this song delves you right back into “weird,” with an awkward, rhythm transition midsection and offbeat lyrics about “Peripheral idiots.” “Oh the periphery! I lost another one there” feels like what Apple might say if she watched my face while I listened to this track; not entirely lost but definitely confused.
08. “Regret”: Apple starts this one singing sweetly enough, but her words (“Remember how I asked you, ‘Why you are so mean?’”) and the minor-key turns of her piano hint at the beast she’s about to unleash. She lets out this guttural wail before spitting, “But I ran out of white dove feathers to soak up the hot piss that comes from your mouth every time you address me.” Poetic burn.
09. “Anything We Want”: When I saw Apple live at Bowery Ballroom in March, this song felt like the “hit.” Notes from an upright bass give it a soft undertone, upheld in the piano, while this constant light cling-and-clang of tinny percussion maintains the quirky Apple sound. “And then/We can/Do anything/We want,” Apple sings, offering a rare optimistic wink.
10. “Hot Knife”: This closer feels more like a poetry reading than a song. There are plenty of musical elements—the entrance of the harmonizing vocals caught me totally off guard—in this song. But the low roll of a lonely drum and the sprinkle of piano feel more like afterthoughts, punctuation to Apple’s vocal performance, most of which consists of the repetition of “If I’m butter, then he’s a hot knife.” If Patti Smith is our rock poet, maybe Apple is our one for jazz-pop.