3.5 stars (out of 4)
Fiona Apple specializes in overwrought album titles and emotionally transparent art-pop songs. “The Idler Wheel is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do” (Epic) , only her fourth studio album since the mid-‘90s and her first in seven years, boasts another wordy title but is even more stripped down and turbulent than before.
In the past, Apple has couched some of the volatility in her songs inside pop-leaning arrangements. But with multi-instrumentalist Charley Drayton as her coproducer, she reduces most of the songs on “The Idler Wheel …” to voice, piano and percussion. It makes for a raw, unsettling listen, tempered by shots of dark humor (“On the periphery, they throw good parties there”).
Jagged arrangements, lurching rhythms and off-kilter melodies echo the singer’s lacerating words. The relationships in these songs are as twisted and unpredictable as her vocals. In a matter-of-fact tone she lays out tales of personal mayhem in “Werewolf,” the daily “fight with my brain” in “Every Single Night” plays out in wordless shouts, and a howl sums up her “Regret.” Stride piano and flights into an upper vocal register suggest a demented blues on “Left Alone.”
Apple’s vocals break and turn with all the haphazard logic of unguarded thoughts, her piano scurrying to keep up or pausing to rain down chords like hammers. Drayton’s array of drums and percussion nick-knacks talk back in spasms and flurries. These songs brim with musical personality, even if the subject matter is often pretty dire. Only on the “Hot Knife,” a vocal duet with her sister, does lust win out over the pain induced by intimacy. Otherwise, Apple isn’t out to soothe or seduce. She wants blood, and sometimes it’s her own.
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