A Fiona Apple record is a study in meticulousness and mayhem. The meticulousness is in the music – the rigorous art-pop constructions that mark Apple as an heir to songwriting sophisticates like Stephen Sondheim and Elvis Costello. And the mayhem? That's Apple herself. For a decade and a half she has been one of pop's most volatile presences: pouting, lamenting, raging, jabbing a poison pen at ruthless fate and callous ex-lovers, but always turning her most savage attacks inward, at herself.
Apple's wild-eyed self-dramatization has been her hallmark from the beginning. On Tidal (1996), the smash debut released when she was just 18, it seemed like adolescent angst, a mannerism she might age out of. Today, we know better: Apple's great theme – her only theme, really – is the heroic struggle going on within her own brain.
Her last album, 2005's Extraordinary Machine, was a richly produced chronicle of her breakup with filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson. The Idler Wheel... is just as rawboned emotionally, and more hard- hitting musically. She pours out her distress on driving songs with lyrics that mix romantic poetry and therapy-speak – Byron by way of Oprah. "I'm an airplane/And the gashes I got from my heartbreak/ Make the slots and the flaps upon my wing/And I use 'em to give me lift," she sings on "Daredevil." You don't ex- pect restraint from a woman whose album title takes the form of a 23-word rhymed couplet.
From another performer, lines like those would be a deal breaker. But with Apple you can excuse them, and even learn to love them. Apple is a true eccentric. On The Idler Wheel..., surprises lurk around every corner. "Left Alone" begins with some battering jazz-style drumming and segues into a deranged boogie-woogie; in "Hot Knife," a double-entendre chorus worthy of an old blues is chirruped by a multitracked choir of Apples. Throughout, Apple sings amazingly, wringing different colors from her voice in every song – twittering like a folky songbird, crooning like a cabaret chanteuse, howling like a blueswoman.
The Idler Wheel... is a challenging album. The songs are intricately arranged but sonically stark, foregrounding Apple's piano and the stupendous drumming of Charley Drayton. There's not a single big, chewy hook on the album. Sometimes the songs drag. The pallid piano ballad "Jonathan" – apparently a mash note to her former beau, the writer Jonathan Ames – would be a trial to sit through if it were two minutes long. It's five-plus.
But Apple's kooky energy pushes through the slow spots. And there's another kind of less out-there intensity here: the erotic kind. The most arresting singing on the album comes midway through "Daredevil," when a skittering arrangement – a kind of drunken cocktail- jazz lurch – screeches to a halt: "Wake me up – gimme, gimme, gimme what you/Got in your mind in the middle of the night!" For a moment, it's like she shares the same desires as the rest of us – even if she expresses them in a language that's utterly her own.
Listen to 'The Idler Wheel...':
• Fiona Apple's Bad, Bad Girl Moments