‘The Idler Wheel’: Fiona Apple’s Incredibly Sane Masterwork

Why is it so funny that Fiona Apple named her 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, and that her second record’s title is an eight-line poem? Why do we keep citing this unusual tendency as proof that Apple is “crazy,” and why does every profile of her you’ll ever read bolster that thesis by recalling that night in 1997 at the MTV Video Music Awards when she accepted a Best New Artist trophy and told the kids at home that the entertainment industry is “bullshit”? For one thing, Apple was 19 years old when she made that speech, and what thinking person wasn’t making those kinds of declarations at that age, albeit to much smaller audiences clustered around bongs in college dorm rooms? More to the point, the entertainment industry and the odd cults of personality it creates sort of are bullshit, and I’m as grateful at 27 as I was at 13 that she had the courage to say so on national TV.

But this is the narrative we’re stuck with: Crazy Fiona Apple disappears for years before surfacing with a new album about her feelings that just happens to be worth hearing. Even when her live shows are flawless and then the early singles are excellent and then Lindsay Zoladz writes a great piece about how the times have finally caught up with Apple’s “oversharing” style and then the album reviews are glowing, there is still this general cultural sense of, “Here’s hysterical Fiona again.” Ann Powers pegs the kind of resistance she faces, writing, “She’s the kind [of woman] whom others want to shut up, but she keeps resurfacing — in the poems of Sylvia Plath, the stories of Lorrie Moore, the films of Lynn Shelton and Miranda July.” It’s there in the Alanis Morissette photo NME accidentally ran alongside its Idler Wheel review, as though all “angry” woman singers are too similar and tiresome to even bother differentiating between, and it’s there when the most common reaction to the news that a 34-year-old musician is about to release her fourth studio is, “She’s still around?” It’s there in this condescending review that calls Apple “verbose” and “indulgent” and “just picky.” More than anywhere else, it’s there in that bemused look or those subtly undermining comments some of your friends will make when you tell them that the new Fiona Apple album is actually really great.

And yes, the consensus is that The Idler Wheel is an excellent album, maybe Apple’s best. I echo basically everything that’s been said in those positive reviews — that the stripped-down arrangements showcase her voice and words, that the songs are odd and difficult at first but make their own unique niches in your brain after a few listens, that her honesty makes the lyrics of even the most perceptive pop songs sound like what you might read in a Hallmark card. But, in stark contrast to the received wisdom about who Fiona Apple is, what really stands out to me is how phenomenally sane I find The Idler Wheel.

It’s possible this just reflects poorly on me, that I find something recognizable in the album because I’m just as histrionic as Apple. Yet I’m hardly the only one who relates to the plainspoken way she dissects her own thoughts and relationships. In a passage Zoladz quotes, New York magazine’s Nitsuh Abebe describes her appeal as “the thrill of… just a certain frankness about reality, and the sense of an artist who can cut casually to the core of what life is like.” Published months before The Idler Wheel came out, this is still the best encapsulation of the album’s genius that I’ve read.

Most of The Idler Wheel is about love and the isolation that comes from the inability to love, and in the 15 years since her debut, Apple has — as you might expect — matured significantly in the way she characterizes her relationships. “I don’t feel comfortable singing the songs that I wrote [when I was younger],” she told BlackBook in a recent interview. “I used to blame other people and not take responsibility. I thought I was a total victim trying to look strong.” On “Werewolf,” she sheds that victim role with bold self-awareness, admitting, “I could liken you to a werewolf, the way you left me for dead / But I admit that I provided a full moon.”

A lot of these songs are about the baggage she carries from years of failed romances; “I can love the same man, in the same bed, in the same city / But not in the same room, it’s a pity,” she confesses on “Left Alone,” and in “Valentine” she relinquishes one particular prospect because “I stand no chance of growing up.” These are sad songs, sure, but they’re also about having the wisdom to understand patterns in your own life. Admitting you’ll never grow up is very different from actually growing up, but at least it means you’ve got a grasp on your problems. Reading Jessica Hopper’s review of The Idler Wheel in Spin, in which she likens Apple’s lyrics on the openly neurotic “Every Single Night” to Joan Didion excerpting her own psychiatric evaluation in The White Album, I couldn’t help but think of all the studies that are always proving that depressed people have more realistic worldviews than their non-depressed counterparts.

The album isn’t all desperation and despair, though. My favorite track so far, “Daredevil,” is a slippery sing-along that starts by enumerating all Apple’s reckless faults. But after a raw-voiced breakdown of sorts, it finds a cautiously optimistic resolution: “I will try hard to hold onto you with open arms.” A song for her ex-boyfriend, author and Bored to Death creator Jonathan Ames, “Jonathan” dramatizes the connection between two deeply imperfect people, and includes such bursts of calm generosity as, “anything / And anyone that you have done / Has gotta be alright with me / If she’s part of / The reason you are how you are / She’s all right with me.” There’s even a beautiful, escapist love song on The Idler Wheel: “Anything We Want” imagines an idealized encounter with a lover “when we find some time alone” — although, ever realistic, Apple can’t resist adding that “we try not to let those bastards get us down.”

From a voice whose rough edges she refuses to sand down — and in fact, on this album, often accentuates — to the sound of boots crunching over gravel on “Periphery” to the relentless self-analysis in lines like, “What’d I say to her, why’d I say it to her? / What does she think of me? / That I’m not what I ought to be / And what I turn out to be’s got to be somebody else’s fault,” Fiona Apple is anything but crazy. She’s human. Now, that’s typically a throwaway description in criticism, meant to convey some vague sense of appealing and relatable imperfection. But Apple is human in a big way, and imperfection is the unifying element of The Idler Wheel‘s frenzied piano ballads. “I want to feel everything” is the refrain of “Every Single Night,” which opens the record and serves as Apple’s thesis statement, and there’s no way but “human” to describe that impulse.

To call what she does “crazy” (or “verbose” or “indulgent”) is to characterize an openness about and understanding of one’s own faults as pathological. It is a way of condemning not only extreme emotions but the mere desire to experience emotions, as though having deep, weird, self-defeating feelings is somehow beyond the pale — as though that isn’t actually a universal and defining aspect of human life that few of us could so vividly describe and many of us veer into neurosis struggling to suppress. When Fiona Apple tells us she just wants to feel everything, it strikes me that this might just be the best life goal you could possibly have as an artist, and the only way to truly understand the endlessly confusing and anxious-making lives we’ve all been given.