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Album review: Fiona Apple explores those ugly feelings in a beautiful way

*** ½ (out of four)

You know what? I can relate to Fiona Apple.

I’m not saying we’re kindred spirits or anything. My voice sounds roughly like a hoarded basement of cats, I’ve never been accused of having an eating disorder and MTV didn’t ban a video of me writhing around in my underwear. But, as Apple will tell you in her new album out June 19, “every night is a fight with my brain.” This lady is desperate for relief—from herself. Desperate to open the floodgates and move on to the next batch of emotions. It’s desperation recognizable to a writer—like, me, for example—attempting to spit out and piece together some intelligent thoughts about an emotional rollercoaster of an album, which honestly left me in a bit of a haze after the first listen and continues to mind[bleep] me into couch comas, depending on the day I give it another spin.

Seven years after “Extraordinary Machine” mesmerized the fanbase built from the 1999 hit album “When the Pawn…,” Apple, 34, releases her fourth full-length, “The Idler Wheel is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords will Serve you More than Ropes will ever do.” The queen of uncomfortable ballads and anthems throughout the early ’00s doesn’t change strategy much for the 10 new tracks, but she does remove what little restraints she had in the past to challenge fans and listeners more than ever. The result? A twisted, shameless-but-regretful display of how to simultaneously accept and reject every flaw and bad decision in your life.

“The Idler Wheel…” is like one gaping, permanent wound dressed up with a kitschy Band-Aid with birds on it. If you work really hard at not paying attention to the album’s extremely dark and hopeless lyrics from a woman desperately clinging to the walls of a bottomless pit, you might think it’s, dare I say, whimsical. Catchy. Beautiful.

That last part is fairly accurate, though. The compositions and melodies, though layered over crushingly revealing lyrics, maintain a playful tone throughout the album—think: bouncy pianos, marimbas, soft drum beats—further driving home the titular idea that the line between sadness and madness often blurs. Apple wants you to feel uncomfortable with this level of vulnerability and brutal honesty she exhibits, especially in tracks like “Left Alone,” which opens with a toe-tapping jazz drum and piano sequence and transitions into a chugging piece about contradicting desires to be both loved and, you guessed it, left alone: “I don’t cry when I’m sad anymore / How can I ask anyone to love me? / And all I do is beg to be left alone.” What specifically does she want? It’s hard to tell, but, then again, Apple doesn’t really know, either. She grasps for connection (“Valentine”) and for companionship (“Anything we Want”), like most of us ultimately do, but her truest desires seem to get torpedoed by her, well, brain (“Every Single Night”). It doesn’t really sound all that “mad” or crazy or difficult to relate to, does it?  

It ain’t pretty. It’s ugly and emotional and uncomfortable. Apple isn’t the first female songwriter to let blood trickle into a song, but she is one of the few to master the art of using her beautiful looks, beautiful voice and beautiful arrangements to twist and manipulate the beautiful sadness in her lyrics and in her ugly feelings. It remains a remarkable collision.

Listen to the album now, streaming on NPR.

jgalliart@tribune.com | @jessicagalliart

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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