Whatever! I Do What I Want!
Fiona Apple's Uncompromising New Masterpiece

In October of 2004, my life was in shambles. I’d lost my lousy workaday job, I’d been unable to find any writing work, and was preparing to head halfway across the country and crawl back to my father for help. And in the midst of all this, Marillion came to my home town and played a tremendous show. And for about three hours, all was right with the world.

In June of 2012, I’m a lot more stable and comfortable with my life. Good job, good home, good people. I’m in a city about 1,000 miles away from my 2004 home, and that’s about as far as I feel from the person I was eight years ago. But one thing has remained the same – I still love Marillion, and I was intensely excited to see them for the first time since those faraway days in Baltimore.

I was able to catch both nights of the band’s stop at Park West in Chicago, one of the best live music venues I’ve ever been in. And they were astoundingly good. Marillion has somehow mastered the art of creating complex, cerebral music that heads right for the soul – emotional head music, if you will – and I can’t even begin to explain the awe and wonder that goes along with hearing something like “This Strange Engine” live. They played the massive “Neverland” both nights, and I felt like I was floating six feet off the ground.

There’s a new Marillion album coming, called Sounds That Can’t Be Made. The band premiered two songs off of it – the pulsating “Power,” and the more down-home rock tune “Lucky Man.” I liked them both, especially “Power,” but the band members said these were just the easiest two to play, and to rehearse for the tour. The new record contains three songs that break the 10-minute mark, they said, and bassist Pete Trewavas said some of the tunes on there will “blow your mind.”

Oh, yeah, didn’t I mention? I got to hang out with the band after the Friday show, thanks to my good friend Jeff Elbel, who reviewed it for Big Takeover Magazine. I’m always sort of awkward and reserved in those situations, but I did shake Trewavas’ hand, and listened as Jeff talked to guitarist Steve Rothery about space travel for about 20 minutes. That was fun and surreal. And I got a picture with drummer Ian Mosley, who only came down to see us after much cajoling. It was a huge amount of fun.

I remain grateful that I found this band, and overjoyed that they continue to make music that moves me. Over these two nights, I got to hear most of the Marillion songs I love: “Out of This World,” “Afraid of Sunlight,” all 18 minutes of “Ocean Cloud,” “The Invisible Man” (twice), “The Great Escape,” “Happiness Is the Road,” “Easter,” and on and on. As Jeff said after the second show, they’re a miracle band, and the fact that they’re still around after more than 30 years and still at the top of their game is simply incredible. Good show, boys. Come back soon.

* * * * *

Coincidentally, it’s been nearly as long since we’ve heard from Fiona Apple.

Her last record, Extraordinary Machine, made headlines for Apple’s tussle with Epic Records, and the decision to scrap the Jon Brion-produced version of the album in favor of a more commercial one by Mike Elizondo. At the time, many people (including me) chastised her for not sticking to her guns, for caving in and reworking an exciting, idiosyncratic album into a less interesting, more palatable thing. Extraordinary Machine Version 2.0 was still wonderful, but you could smell compromise all over it.

“Compromise” is a word no one will ever use to describe Apple’s just-released fourth album. Start with its title, in full: The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw, and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do. It’s no 90-word monster like the poem that adorned her second album, but it’s a mouthful. But a thoughtful one – an idler wheel is a piece of machinery that doesn’t seem to move, yet controls a number of other moving parts. It’s a metaphor, she says, for people like her who don’t seem to be doing anything with their time, but are really taking everything in and quietly creating.

As put off as I expect Epic was with the title of this record, I’m sure they were even more taken aback by its contents. This is… well, uncompromising is probably the best word for it. Even fans of her previous work will find this one almost defiantly unlikable, at least on first listen. It’s minimalist and difficult, comprised almost entirely of dissonant jazz chords and brittle, strange melodies, delivered with a much rawer tone than Apple’s ever allowed on record before. Many of these songs consist of piano, percussion and voice, and that’s it.

And also? It’s brilliant. These songs are miles ahead of any she’s written, complicated and painfully honest and quite unlike anything she’s done. It’s an album that reveals its pleasures gradually. Your first time through, you’ll be mystified, shaking your head, wondering why this record was released in this condition. It won’t make any sense. You’ll walk away befuddled, confused, and maybe a little angry.

But stay with it, and The Idler Wheel will reward you. Opener “Every Single Night,” for instance, is one of the least immediately appealing things here, a strange jazz ballad with virtually no instruments. Acoustic bass, vibes and piano, all playing single, ringing notes while Apple lets loose with that big, bold voice. She allows it to crack and wither in places, so when her double-tracked booming hits on the sort-of chorus, it’s striking. It’s a song you could study for weeks.

Many of the tracks on The Idler Wheel are like that. “Daredevil” sounds like it was surreptitiously recorded at a rehearsal between Apple and drummer Charlie Drayton. It’s all plunking piano and tickled drums, and at one point, Apple screams her little torn and frayed throat out. (The moments on this album where Apple sounds most out of control, vocally speaking, are among my favorites. They just show how much control she really has.) “Valentine” is an easier pill to swallow, even though it’s just as minimal. “I’m a tulip in a cup, I stand no chance of growing up,” Apple sings, and it’s the first time on the album she gives us what you’d call a recognizable melody.

“Jonathan” is, yes, about Jonathan Ames, whom Apple dated from 2007 to 2010. It’s also one of the most complex and gorgeous songs here. While Apple picks out a piano melody that probably makes perfect sense in her head, Drayton builds little percussion sculptures behind her. “I don’t want to talk about anything,” Apple mutters, before referring to Ames as “a captain of a capsized ship.” But she turns her critical eye on herself on the grand “Left Alone.” Over a galloping piano-drum duet, she wails, “How can I ask anyone to love me when all I do is beg alone?” Drayton positively shines on this song – his drum parts qualify as orchestration.

“Werewolf” is the album’s most accessible moment, which isn’t a very high bar to clear. But it’s a fantastic song with some splendid lyrics: “I could liken you to a werewolf the way you left me for dead, but I admit I provided a full moon, 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…” Even though it’s the most tuneful song here, it never goes where you’d expect. By this point on the album, the style is settling in – it’s piano and drums again, with some odd feral screaming mixed in over the second half. You’ll find yourself thinking that “Werewolf” should be the single, and then you’ll catch yourself, because it sounds nothing like any single ever released in the history of anything.

Apple gets her best line out in “Regret”: “I ran out of white dove’s feathers to soak up the hot piss that comes from your mouth every time you address me.” That’s the chorus, and she resists the temptation to venomously spit it out. “Regret” is nearly ambient, in fact, its subtle piano chord changes barely breaking its droning mood. “Anything We Want” sounds like a closing song, built on a rickety scaffold of percussion, some acoustic bass and barely-moving piano, but it leads to a lovely and memorable chorus. “And then we can do anything we want” is almost the mission statement of the album.

Yeah, she could have ended with that, but instead, she went with “Hot Knife,” which completely flips this album’s script. After nine songs of personal anguish and relationship woes, Apple hits us with four minutes of pure sexual longing, sung like the Andrews Sisters – she brings in Maude Margaret to croon the high harmonies, and double- and triple-tracks the voices into something of a choir. “I’m a hot knife, he’s a pat of butter, if I get a chance I’m gonna show him that he’s never gonna need another…” It’s a wry grin, a sweet and fun way to go out.

In some ways, I feel like this is Fiona Apple’s first real album. It’s the first one that sounds like she was in control from the start, the first one that feels completely free of commercial concerns. There isn’t a hint of compromise in the entire 42 minutes, and Apple’s sheer belief in these songs, and her ability to perform them this way, makes for riveting listening.

These are the best songs she’s written – she’s working on a whole other level here, far beyond anything she’s done. She took her time, she made the album she wanted to, and the result is a top-to-bottom stunner. You may feel confused and disoriented by this record at first, but don’t worry. It will pass. Fiona Apple’s been very good for a long time, but The Idler Wheel is the album on which she really shows us what she can do, if she’s left alone to do it.

* * * * *

All right, it’s time for the halftime report. You know the drill by now. Below you’ll find my current draft of the 2012 top 10 list – essentially, what it would look like were I forced to set it in stone right now. Thankfully, I’m not, and with new records from Aimee Mann, Muse, Yeasayer, Marillion, Bloc Party, Green Day, Minus the Bear, Animal Collective, Amanda Palmer and Devin Townsend on the way, this list will no doubt change before the end of the year.

But for now, here’s what we’re looking at.

#10. Beach House, Bloom.
#9. Andrea Dawn, Theories of How We Can Be Friends.
#8. Esperanza Spalding, Radio Music Society.
#7. John K. Samson, Provincial.
#6. Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel.
#5. Rufus Wainwright, Out of the Game.
#4. Shearwater, Animal Joy.
#3. Bryan Scary, Daffy’s Elixir.
#2. Punch Brothers, Who’s Feeling Young Now.
#1. Lost in the Trees, A Church That Fits Our Needs.

All right. Next week, Rush and Sigur Ros. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.