By Geo Ong
For an artist with large gaps of time in between works, it can sometimes be easier to notice the progression of her style. Fiona Apple’s debut album Tidal was released in 1996. When the Pawn…* followed three years later. Extraordinary Machine was released after another six years. Now, seven years later, Apple released her fourth album, The Idler Wheel…** Interestingly enough, I can sum up each effort quite neatly. Tidal is sultry. When the Pawn is jazz lounge. Extraordinary Machine is offbeat. The Idler Wheel is bare.
Of course, those are conveniently simple signifiers that barely, if at all, do justice to the depth of Apple’s work. The funny thing is that each album has a smaller dose of the other three adjectives.
The Idler Wheel, however, is what we’re here to talk about. It is arguably her barest album, both musically and lyrically. Large portions of songs—sometimes even whole songs—seem comprised only of a vocal track over jagged piano and intermittent percussion. Lyrically, Apple oftentimes sidesteps metaphor for the more straightforward, displaying the show-your-bones honesty that listeners have come to expect from her. In fact, Apple has the knack for making her most straightforward lyrics some of her most poetic:
Seek me out!
Look at! Look at! Look at! Look at
I’m all the fishes in the sea.
Wake me up!
Gimme! Gimme! Gimme
What you got in your mind
In the middle of the night.
Having said that, when Apple does choose to employ metaphor, it is often just as powerful because we almost always know what she’s singing about.
That’s where the pain comes in
Like a second skeleton
Trying to fit beneath the skin
I can’t fit the feelings in.
—from ‘Every Single Night’
It’s been a long time, but Fiona Apple is back, and there’s no other way to put it.