Fiona has always been a love of mine. I remember several years ago making a playlist of all the artists I wanted to explore that summer—Fiona Apple, Peter Gabriel, The Smiths, The Cure (what a random mix)—and I ended up having to put the other artists on hold because every time I hit a Fiona song, I just wanted more. There was something about her that demanded my full attention.
Seven years since her last album, Extraordinary Machine (2005), and she has finally come out with something new! The Idler Wheel… is perhaps her most musically whimsical and experimental album yet. The first track, “Every Single Night”, starts off with what sounds like a child’s music box. Throughout the album she plays around with multi-tracking her own voice, sometimes in unison and sometimes in harmony, and the final track, “Hot Knife”, is almost entirely a cappella. (Fun fact: her sister sings on that track. Cute.) She also experiments a great deal with percussion. There is a quick patting like a lap being hit in “Daredevil”, the sound of shoes scraping the ground in “Periphery”, and what sounds like the rhythmic tapping of kitchen appliances to keep the beat in “Jonathan”. She even adds a slamming door to the end of “Regret”. These percussive choices really change the feel of songs that otherwise feature only a piano and maybe a cello.
Lyrically, I was impressed. It is so interesting to see how Fiona has developed over her career, which has been drawn out because of the luxurious amount of time she takes between each album. On her first album, Tidal (1996) (I was six when that came out), there are songs like “Never Is A Promise” and “Sullen Girl” that are thick with heartbreak and bitterness. Although her newer album still deals with heavy emotional content, there is a dark humor to her new songs that was not there before, a self-deprecation. In “Werewolf” she sings, “I could liken you to a werewolf the way you left me for dead / But I admit I provided a full moon. / And I could liken you to a shark the way you bit off my head / But then again I was waving around a bleeding, open wound.” The piano swings in three-quarter time like an old folk song, a little melancholy but still lighthearted. She seems older and wiser in these songs, less willing to take herself too seriously.
And, as always, the vocals are remarkable and incredibly versatile. Throughout the album she goes from a hushed and sultry lower register, to a childlike upper register, to a rant through gritted teeth, to an angry growl, to a shaking, shivering vibrato. These are definitely the songs of a frantic, agitated mind, and she sings them unrestrainedly. It is also just wonderful to hear a female singer who proudly swoops to lower notes, and they are beautiful.
Best song on the album: “Valentine”.
In the end, probably not my personal favorite of her albums, but I did enjoy it. I really respect her musically. I think she is a crazy person (on NPR she talked about how she buys parenting books so that she can practice “parenting herself”—what!!), but in a way, I think that that feeds into my respect for her music. She is completely genuine and unafraid. Her voice is beautiful, and there is a rawness and sincerity to her music that makes it enjoyable even if you are put off by the scraping, tinkling, and whistling in the background.