The Idler Wheel Turns 10: Fiona Apple’s Song of Herself, a Decade OnPhoto by Paul R. Giunta/Getty Music Features Fiona Apple
Fiona Apple wants you to know she’s telling the truth. Her whole career, to some extent, has been a battle to prove to you (and sometimes even to herself) that she’s not crazy, though she expects you to think she is anyway. Her acceptance speech for her win at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards famously started with the sentiment that “this world is bullshit,” forging her reputation as a loose cannon in the industry for which she voiced her disdain, but few remember that the speech ended with the advice to “go with yourself,” which she then repeated. Though many viewed the incident as career suicide, Apple has never regretted it. 15 years later, while promoting her fourth studio album The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do, she cited her minute at the podium with the Moon Man as the first time in her nascent career where she felt she could speak up to herself.
“Whatever I read in the paper, if somebody says that I’m crazy now? I’m not going to believe it just because they say it,” she concluded in another interview at the time, perhaps knowing that the forthcoming The Idler Wheel… might cause even the most devoted fans to doubt her sanity. “This [album] I love, even though there’s a lot of pain that I went through during the making of it. I feel very sure of myself. Not that I’m so great, but that I’m right.”
It recalls the the last few stanzas of a poem Apple wrote in 1999, which then became the title of her second album When the Pawn…: “And remember that depth is the greatest of heights / And if you know where you stand, then you know where to land / And if you fall it won’t matter, cuz you’ll know that you’re right.” It was a mantra she’d carry with her eight years after The Idler Wheel…, revealing itself again on Fetch the Bolt Cutters opener “I Want You To Love Me”: “And I know none of this will matter in the long run / But I know a sound is still a sound around no one.” If you go back searching for it, her five studio albums contain assertion after reassertion, conveying a staunch sense of her own identity as much as they do a fear of abandonment or heartbreak.
This constant reexamination of one’s own reality can come off as self-absorption to those who aren’t forced to question their role in their own lives on a daily basis, or have never worried about needing evidence outside of their word to prove that something happened to them. Though the definition of “gaslighting” has been broadened and reshaped to the point where it doesn’t really mean anything anymore, Apple has always written like someone prepared to combat the suggestion that she’s imagining her version of events. The sheer necessity of playing witness to her own trauma allows her to recount each pain and triumph in gory, bone-deep detail. Her writing repels as much as it reflects, welcoming complexity and contradiction in an art form where work is supposed to be easily digestible, something to sit with passively. To understand her is to understand that both her tangible and emotional reality are true, and your comfort does not play a role in how she expresses the truth.
Following the introspective piano pop of her 1996 debut Tidal and the quirky, percussive fury of 1999’s Jon Brion-produced When the Pawn…, Apple had entered the studio with Brion again to make her third record in 2002. The timeline from there becomes hazy, as rough versions of the tracks leaked online and by 2004, Brion claimed the album had been shelved. Rumors swirled that Epic Records had rejected his ambitious, heavily orchestrated versions of the songs, resulting in a short-lived mass protest (dubbed “Free Fiona”) demanding that Epic officially release the album. Apple eventually re-recorded the tracks with hip-hop producer Mike Elizondo, rearranging all but two songs and finally letting Extraordinary Machine loose on the world in October 2005. Overwhelmed by the media fanfare and constantly shifting deadlines, Apple voiced her desire to create without the pressure of a due date breathing down her neck. Accordingly, she arrived at the Epic offices in early 2012 to announce she was dropping off her completed new record. The label hadn’t been aware that there was an album in the works to begin with.
This isolated mode of creation and the radically different music of the final product set the stage for Apple’s career going forward, giving her space to painstakingly craft each song, taking major creative swings in the process. After recording basic piano and vocal tracks, Apple recruited touring drummer Charley Drayton in 2009 to act as co-producer. Together, the pair embellished the raw material with unconventional percussion that quite literally became the album’s beating heart, layering thigh slaps, “truck stomping” and the scraping sound of their dancing feet over their complex mini-symphonies. In substituting the bombastic chamber pop of albums past with harrowing arrangements carried out with all acoustic instruments, where every clatter and stray breath had meaning, she sought creative and personal autonomy that she hadn’t been allowed up to that point. Howling where she would have once cooed, she birthed her most visceral statement to date, pulsing with almost too much life as she exposed her horrors and joys in equally vibrant, bleeding color. When looking at her entire body of work, Fetch the Bolt Cutters serves as a foil to The Idler Wheel…—each as chaotic and percussive as the other, the pair that took 15 years total to be bottled up and explode magnificently feel like sonic sister albums. Yet before Bolt Cutters could aim outwards, carrying carefully concentrated rage with learned confidence by reaching to both the past and future with a tight-knit band supporting her, The Idler Wheel… had to look inward, taking solace in the universes that exist within any given.
From the first track, Apple idealizes herself as something cosmically connected to the universe around her, towering over those without the same sensitivity or tact. “Every Single Night” jerks between breathy whispers and a whooping war cry as Apple’s voice tiptoes around fluttery celeste and the constant hum of jazz drum brushes. Even as she describes her living nightmare, she explains why she can’t simply numb herself to her own sensitivity in a five-word thesis statement: “I just wanna feel everything.” “My heart’s made of parts of all that’s around me / And that’s why the devil just can’t get around me,” she strangles out through her teeth before gasping for air, painting the urge to consume all she sees as a mission for the sake of survival, rather than ego. The staccato shuffle of “Daredevil” carries this theme over, as plunking acoustic bass soundtracks Apple’s argument that the suffering is given meaning because she can make art from it: “Say I’m an airplane / And the gashes I got from my heartbreak / Make the slots and the flaps upon my wing / And I use them to give me a lift.” The tightrope walk becomes more perilous when all noise ceases to make space for Apple’s demand to, “Look at! Look at! Look at! Look at me!” Despite her insistence that her pain is a gift, crashing piano chords slowly fade, giving way to a battered heartbeat beneath the balancing act.
Fittingly, the moments where Apple finds herself at her most sonically daring are the ones where she cuts straightest to the marrow lyrically. Case in point: “Valentine” stands stark against the colorful flourishes of the prior two tracks, agonizing over a relationship where the other person is able to turn the intensity of their emotions down on a whim, something Apple can’t even imagine (“I’ve made my peace, I’m dead, I’m done / I watch you live to have my fun”). The tale of seething jealousy is carried out in forceful cello strikes as she insists, “I root for you / I love you / You, you, you, you,” though the strident anger dripping from her voice suggests that she wishes the other person felt as strongly about her—the more forceful her growl, the clearer it becomes that she roots for her place in this person’s future more than she does what’s actually best for them. The song’s climax melts into wincing orchestral chaos, leading into the final chorus of, “You, you, you, you, you,” and letting each utterance of the word feel like a fist she wishes she could send flying through drywall instead. The continued refrain has noticeably less force in it afterwards, as if she has no venom left to fight with as the white noise and the creaking of her piano bench settle around her. The weighty, seasick sway of “Jonathan” proves just as unsettling, sounding as much like the unsteady rock of the train mentioned in the lyrics as it does a hiccuping factory line, which suggests Apple and her partner have had this conversation countless times, to the point where it’s become formulaic. “Just tolerate my little fists / Tugging on your forest chest,” she begs of her other half, who seems unwilling to deal with the instability of her mood: “I don’t wanna talk about / I don’t wanna talk about anything.”
The aforementioned vow of silence doesn’t last long, culminating in the sensory overload of album centerpiece “Left Alone.” As a scrambled piano figure loops itself to the point of dizziness, mirroring the repetitive nature of Apple’s emotional highs and lows, she flat-out asks whether it’s possible to maintain your sanity without numbing yourself to the world: “My love wrecked you, you packed to twirl your skirt at the palace / It hurt more than it ought to hurt, I went to work to cultivate a callus.” An operatic dip and rise of her voice weaves through one twisting melody after another until it screeches to a halt with a desperate plea of, “How can I ask anyone to love me / When all I do is beg to be left alone?” Though this is the moment bolded and underlined by the musical storm in which the lyrics find themselves swept up, perhaps the most telling moment comes in the song’s third and final verse, where Apple whimpers more than she sings, “Nothing, nothing is manageable,” looking at the wreckage of a hurricane littered around her feet. As the album’s first half comes barreling to a close, we’re dragged through Apple’s daily horrors as if we’re living them alongside her, knowing the storm doesn’t cease just because the music stops.
As if signaling time spent collecting herself outside before we reconvene, the album’s second half opens with the sound of Apple closing the studio door, walking to the piano with purpose before she starts to play. Though “Werewolf,” the first entry in a trio of breakup songs, begins as a plaintive piano ballad, it feels like it could erupt at any given moment, as if Apple could let the lava shoot up if she only had the energy to erupt with it. Even so, after expressing the half-hearted hope that, “In the end, I’m a sensible girl” (and maybe predicting the laughter bound to come in response to such a statement), the final, raging chorus is backed up by a choir of screaming children. The sardonic hope that, “We can still support each other / All we gotta do’s avoid each other,” grows sadder with the inclusion of the added ambient chaos. Likewise, the insistence that there’s “nothing wrong” when things turn sour takes on a whole new guise with the cacophony of voices raging and the timpani thundering beneath it all.
In a complete pivot, the lopsided march of “Periphery” details a similar incident to those recounted on Extraordinary Machine’s “Oh Well” and “Window,” where Apple’s partner leaves her for someone else. Unlike on those scathing takedowns, Apple here seems almost resigned to the subject’s immaturity, peering down her nose at his inability to commit and reminding herself she’ll be better off. Though her victory lap doesn’t necessarily feel empowering, the damning description is victory enough, letting the strident piano line carry the subject off to become someone else’s problem (“Besides, he can take it up / With his brethren or his bride / Just not with me”). As the album pivots again, “Regret” serves as the funhouse mirror image of “Left Alone”’s panicked self-loathing, using its sober funeral march rhythm to force her attacker to join the procession and face what he’s done. “’Member when I was so sick and you didn’t believe me?” she mumbles, “Then you got sick too, and guess who took care of you?” The fury rises to a full-body scream before returning to desperate whispers of, “leave me alone,” before Apple cuts herself off with a harsh sigh and what sounds like a slam of the keyboard cover, knowing her anger won’t fix anything if no one’s there to hear it. But we did. We acted as witnesses with her.
“Anything We Want” and “Hot Knife” start the cycle over again, taking fleeting glances at the storm of a new relationship ahead in the former and letting her feeling culminate in a cataclysmic blaze of layered vocals in the latter. Even her most positive emotions sting rather than soothe, accompanied by Apple and her sister’s round of vocals. “He makes my heart a CinemaScope screen / Showing the dancing bird of paradise,” she sings, treating her elation over the newfound connection like a challenge to be met as her voice propels itself over each new hurdle. By the time the chorus of voices are strictly a cappella, it feels like we’re meant to loop right back around to the opening track, ready for the cyclical opera to continue. The fever pitch hits high, but Apple knows her partner’s ability to reciprocate can’t last, and that we’ll end up tumbling back down from the high again.
Leaning into jazz tradition as much as it does conventional singer/songwriter-at-a-piano song structure, there’s a sense of breathlessness through the album’s runtime, as if there’s so much to cram into its creaking, skeletal structure that it needs every bit of your attention in order to stand up. Still, there’s never a moment that Apple doesn’t appear to be in control of each moving part. Her ability to master her own devil even while she’s spinning all of these plates speaks to her strength; what feels to some like indulgence is simply a survivor’s cry.
There’s relief in it, as well—maybe not for its writer, but for its listener. In the face of a war against yourself, comprised of battles you fight alone, there’s something euphoric in hearing someone reflect your experience back to you. The recognition in something so excruciatingly personal is enough to make you feel you’re big enough to combat whatever terror pushes at you from the inside, working as a roadmap of how we can push through it. The enemy we’re forced to face is illusive, and often invisible, but never imaginary. Apple knows this, and wants you to know she’s fought the battle you’re fighting. It’s not a complete fix, but still a comfort. She knows you’re not crazy. She wants you to know, too.
The bridge between The Idler Wheel…’s isolation and Fetch the Bolt Cutters’ longing for community comes in the form of a two-minute piano ballad about a very famous performance space in Los Angeles, tacked onto most streaming versions of The Idler Wheel… as a bonus track. “Largo” sees Apple venture down to the titular spot (“Recently rid of a man again”), feeling protected from herself in the company of people she knows care for her: “And how could I listen without wanting to be with them? / And how could I have thought that I was ever alone?”
It grants access to a place where she was able to find affirmation (“I’m pissed off, funny and warm / I’m a good man in a storm”), compassion (“Nobody can replace anybody else / So it would be a shame to make it a competition”) and even deeper connection to the world around her (“Up until now, in a rush to prove / But now, I only move to move”) when she reemerged eight years down the line. In order to gain that perspective, she had to tear her insides out and show us who she’d been up against the whole time. In the collected sighs, slams and scraping feet building the rhythm on Apple’s patio, there is cathartic release, or at least a temporary salve that will allow us to carry on. We bear witness, stringing our experiences together to create something wondrous because we’ve been there and survived, because we know that we’re right.
Elise Soutar is a writer, musician, friend of witches, wannabe punk and annoying New Yorker. You can watch her share the same pictures of David Bowie over and over again on Twitter @moonagedemon.