Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel… Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel…

Ed. Note: The full title of this album is, in fact, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do.

Words by Juliet Hope Wayne, Photos by Ben Irwin

It starts with the cover, a self-portrait that looks like a sketch for an invention she’s working out, like a tinkerer in a garage, applying the simplest knowledge of mechanics. We listen in as she digs to her core, throwing things out, adding things in.

She finds significance in everything. Walking drunk through her yard one day she knocked over a nest of hummingbirds. This accident, she decided, would have to be used for some kind of good, which is when she decided to quit drinking, something that had become a bad habit.

The work on this album is a reminder that what gets us through ordeals is being highly imaginative, looking for the dark humor, sometimes screwing up even worse, like an idler wheel, that turns and turns, working to create something bigger than itself.

“Every Single Night” gives us the first glimpse into her dreams. A tiny music box provides entrance into the psyche and loud ominous drums tell you it’s too late to turn around. We hear Fiona’s already dreamlike double-meaning vocabulary with “The rib is a shell and the heart is a yolk.” The heart is a yolk, messy and surreally out of place. The heart is a yoke, a burden.

But then “My heart’s made of parts of all that surround me, and that’s why the devil just can’t get around me.” I imagine if the devil happened upon the scene of Fiona rifling through the jungle of her mind he’d probably back away figuring, “you know, I think she’s got this ‘torment’ thing down…” knowing yourself can be the best protection against evil.

“Daredevil” sums up how it feels right after that first argument you have with a new boyfriend or girlfriend. They’ve seen how your brain works, how you deal with conflict. The flapping of wings is heard as if to magnify the fight or flight vibe. She then warns and politely requests at the same time: “don’t let me ruin me, I may need a chaperone.”

In “Regret” she describes how her ex taught her how to regret and how to be mean. Regret, unlike remorse, isn’t defined by any direct admission of one’s own guilt. A chugging mechanical beat takes us through this regret’s destructive effect on us. Weighted down by a powder keg of frustration she lights up a satisfying firecracker of character assassination with:

“I ran out of white dove feathers, to soak up the hot piss that comes from your mouth, every time you address me”

This is followed by a circular repetition of “leave me alone”s. Exhausted by her own thoughts she seems to be singing directly to regret and not the person who taught her what it means. Anytime I pretend I was the one who never had hot piss coming out of my mouth I always feel like I have hot piss coming out of my mouth.


I think if she’d written “Left Alone” ten years ago it would have painted a picture of someone isolated and distressed. You don’t hear a word like “moribund” very often and when you do it’s hardly delivered as if it meant something schnazzy as it is here when she describes herself as a “moribund slut.” I’m sure she gets a lot of comments about her weight, and “moribund” which means “moth-eaten” can be a lively explanation!

She pauses briefly to wonder “how can I ask anyone to love me, when all I ask is to be left alone”

Then it’s hustle-bustle of self-evaluation up and down the piano keys. It reminds me of one of those nights you stay in and amuse yourself with something simple and weird instead of hiding in the bathroom at a party. (And by one night I mean like two years.) Those long, hidden thought corridors we find during stretches of isolation can take some striking to hear them captured for the hall of mirrors they can be sometimes.

Apple often addresses her ex, the self-destructive writer and performer Jonathan Ames. The repeated line “I don’t want to talk about anything” will resonate with anyone whose ever fashioned their hand into a jaw jacking puppet, exhausted by a writer’s constant blah-blah bullets. Industrial sounds shuffle in the background, like garbage trucks and exhausted forklifts moving detritus. It might say more about me but hearing these sounds makes me just want to scream, “God! Just fucking break up!”

“I just like watching you live” could be the nicest way of reminding someone that there is way more to life then constantly being in the spotlight, however, the increasing disorder has the feeling of two performers who’ve drawn heavily on their personal lives and are aware that the show is falling apart.


In “Valentine” and “Werewolf” the funerary piano tells us it didn’t pan out. It wasn’t any one person’s fault and she owns up to luring in her sharks and werewolves with bloody wounds. As if to say, “Yeah, fine, I DO know what my spirit animal is. You didn’t have to get all weird, though.” She “understands the fiction of the fix,” the impossibility of something lasting when the highs require so much role playing. With a view this clear the solution isn’t fussy (“all we gotta do is avoid each other”) nor is it resentful (“I root for you”).

“Periphery” opens to the sound of our svelte (to me she’s more than svelte; she looks like she’s disintegrating) misfit taking a long, hard walk through some gritty terrain. She tells the listener of her disdain for some social scene she’s extracted herself from or maybe lost a little joint custody of as a result of a break up. “They throw good parties there,” she explains as if it’s a mark of their superficiality “they always have a bite to bear.”

I can’t imagine that even a recluse like Fiona Apple hasn’t enjoyed a good party or had a bite to bear of her own, so there is something endearing about the simplicity of these lines. Perfect example of the many ways we use sour grapes as salve for loneliness, just to get through, to keep marching.

The drums bottom out just as she hits the line about how he’ll be carrying on “just not…with me” and you can feel the way your stomach turns when you miss someone. But the sound of walking continues regardless and she adds the sweetly awkward “I don’t appreciate…people who…don’t appreciate.”

Lines like “You let me down” and “I don’t even like you anymore” seem to say that she’s not even going to waste her imagination on coming up with one of her more searing lyrics for him. And “All that lovin’ must have been lacking something if I got bored tryin’ to figure you out” underlines how distracting the whole thing is, considering it’s the chorus of a song she is singing about him.


Through the trudging footsteps and bold declarations about how bad everything was, there is a relentlessly optimistic Vince Gauraldi-esqe piano melody. The kind of music you hear when Woodstock is fluttering above Snoopy when he’s typing on the doghouse. The piano seems like the “confidant to help me laugh it off” she mentions in “Daredevil.” Someone that listens to your contradictory vent lightens your angry little rant and keeps walking with you.

Earlier in the album she said she “just wants to feel everything,” and after all the arduous reflecting and deliberating the reward is the feeling encompassed in “Hot Knife.”

The song features drums that sound like the soundtrack from a 1930’s cartoon where someone is tied up, marinating in a boiling cauldron, about to be eaten by drum-pounding natives.

Apple recorded the vocals with her sister, cabaret singer, Maude Maggert, while staring directly at each other. She said it was one of the most intense bonding experiences they ever had, and it comes across in the way they keep matching and accelerating and the language gets so layered, just the way it’s hard to keep up with two sisters once they get going.

The innocent nursery rhyme melody paired with the erotic lyrics and pounding drums announce a refreshingly libertine perspective on love and sex.

One of the last lines on the album is “He makes my heart a cinemascope.” A brave declaration from someone so acutely aware of all the other things one’s heart can turn into.

If you want to feel everything, after all, you have to feel everything.


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