Unguarded honesty doesn’t go out of style. This is especially true in 2012, when major artists can get so caught up in “brand management” and web-based “social engagement” that the core of their art — emotion, intelligence, meaningful connectivity — is sometimes lost amidst bottomless scrolls. Being able to slice through the bullshit is arguably more coveted now than when Fiona Apple did just that during her ferocious acceptance speech at the 1997 VMAs. Another famed modern truth-teller and award-show crasher (and noted Fiona fan), Kanye West, has been able to harness technology, the media, and his own public projection by constantly negotiating with all things fresh and new. Apple doesn’t really care about all that. In interviews from both 2000 and 2012, she claimed to not listen to any new music whatsoever, and when she recently sat down with Carrie Battan for a Pitchfork interview, she referred to Google as “this whole Google thing,” like an overwhelmed grandmother. On her entirely acoustic fourth album, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do, the 34-year-old makes herself heard with her voice, her words, her piano, and not much else.
This is the most distilled Fiona Apple album yet. While her celebrated previous work was marked by eclectic musical flourishes courtesy of producers including Jon Brion and Mike Elizondo, The Idler Wheel is fearlessly austere in comparison. She worked with touring drummer Charley Drayton on the album, and his touches are light and incisive. Speaking of the record’s signature clattering percussion — including thigh slaps, truck stomps, and “pillow,” according to the credits — Apple associated the homemade sounds with an increased freedom: “I just like that feeling of: ‘I’m in charge, I can do whatever I want.'” And this musique concrète approach is not random. Every single waveform is pierced with purpose, from the muted heartbeat thumping through “Valentine” to the childlike plinks popping around the uncharacteristically optimistic “Anything We Want” to the chugging factory sounds that give “Jonathan” its uneasy rhythm.
It’s an old-school approach, though it rises well above mere sepia Instagrams. Instead of being far-off and dreamy, her throwback moves are the opposite — intrusive, corporeal. This is not background music. It demands attention. “Look at! Look at! Look at! Look at me!” she pleads on “Daredevil”, a knowing admission of her self-destructive tendencies. But even after being thrown into the media spotlight at a young age, and having to deal with crippling doubt, Fiona Apple didn’t go boom. She’s still here, brave enough to indulge in raw emotion and smart enough to make those feelings carry. — Pitchfork