Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel | An in-depth retrospective on one of the most important, vulnerable, emotional and influential albums of the 2010s.

Back in the 90s, Fiona Apple was on top of the world, after winning a grammy, a VMA and selling almost 3 million copies of her debut album, her path to stardom seemed very clear. The beginning of Apple’s step out of the spotlight probably began with her controversial VMA’s speech, Fiona Apple took the stage and stated that instead of using the time to thank who she needed to she wanted to use it to say a few things that needed to be said, “everybody that’s watching, This world is Bullshit, and you shouldn’t model your life about what you think that we think is cool and what we’re wearing and what we’re saying, Go with yourself”. Apple’s “This world is bullshit” speech shook the whole room, she was met with a mix of cheering, booing and heckling, now over 20 years on Fiona Apple is praised for her words which have been repeated, parodied and rewatched countless times since her speech. 

Fiona’s first two albums were released fairly close together but due to personal issues, conflicts with her label and a change of producers Apple’s third record “Extraordinary Machine” launched almost 6 years after her previous one. “The Idler Wheel is wiser than the driver of the screw and whipping chords will serve you more than ropes will ever do”, frequently abridged to “The Idler Wheel…” was Apple’s 4th record. “The Idler Wheel” opened to massive success debuting at number 3 on the billboard album charts and major critical acclaim including being added to the Rolling Stone magazine’s top 500 albums of all time list. 

“The Idler Wheel” opens with the emotive track, “Every Single Night”. “Every Single Night” was the first promotional single for the album, it remains Apple’s only chart hit to date in Japan and was the inspiration and originally the basis for Panic at the disco!’s 2013 hit song “Miss Jackson” until Apple refused to let them use her sample. “Every single night” opens with quiet instrumentals and peaceful and solemn vocals from Apple and then change into vocals that have a sense of yearning and desperation which set the theme for many tracks on this album. Apple has always being praised for her song writing and this is one of the tracks where it really shines, lines like “Every single night, I endure the flight, of little wings of white-flamed, butterflies in my brain” perfectly encapsulate Apple’s struggle surrounding sleep, mental health and irrational thoughts. “Every Single Night” Draws parallels with Apple’s 90’s chart hit “Sleep to dream”, the song and music video for both songs depict trouble with sleeplessness and irritation it causes. 

“Daredevil” is the next track on the album, although this may seem one of the most loud and energetic tracks on the album, the lyrics act as a self-reflection Apple is making of herself, the opening lines “I guess I just must be a daredevil, I don’t feel anything until I smash it up” showcases how Apple feels she has become careless and how she only has regret for her actions after the damage has already been done. “Daredevil” is definitely one of, if not the most charming and cheeky track on the album. One of the final verses Apple uses all her energy to yell lines such as “Seek me out, look at, look at, look at me, I’m all the fishes in the sea” these lines showcase a desperation and yearning experienced towards someone and the all the fishes in the sea line is a clever play on the classic saying plenty more fish in the sea, which would often be said to someone moving on and finding someone else after rejection or a breakup in a relationship. 

“Valentine” is a beautiful piano ballad and definitely one of the more calm tracks on the album, Apple first played this track on valentines day 2007 at club Largo and she said at the time it was written not about any man but rather a woman she wanted to be like. “Valentine” tells the story of what appears to be an unsuccessful date in a line of many for a hopeless romantic but through it all Apple repeats the lines “I root for you, I love you” and while realising she may never find true love she shows her support for the other person.

The 4th track on the album is a love song dedicated to journalist Jonathan Ames entitled “Jonathan”. Fiona Apple dated Jonathan Ames on and off for a few years and remains friends with him to this day. Apple talks about her love for Ames on this track but also the difficulties in their relationship with lines like “You like to captain a capsized ship, But I like watching you live”, Apple describes herself here as a “capsized ship”, which showcases her lack of self belief and also Apple believing she is a burden to Jonathan which is reinforced with lines from the chorus “just tolerate my little fist tugging on your forest chest”. 

“Left Alone” is a song where Apple expresses her longing for solitude. “I’m hard, too hard to know, I don’t cry when I’m sad anymore” shows that Apple has experienced so many overwhelming emotions that she no longer elicits the type of response that situations would expect. “My ills are reticulate, my woes are granular, the ants weigh more than the elephants, nothing is manageable” is one of my favourite moments from this album and so perfectly encapsulates how it feels to suffer from anxiety. The track closes with Fiona repeatedly begging until she seemingly runs out of energy just to be left alone.

“Werewolf” is the next track, “Werewolf” was released as a single with no music video just two weeks prior to the album and has since became a fan favourite, Rolling Stone magazine listed “Werewolf” as the 9th best song of 2012 and the best from the album. I believe I may hold bias in my writing about this song since it is my all time favourite song but “The Idler Wheel” is my all time favourite album and we are too far in now so lets continue. “Werewolf” is a love song where instead of simply blaming the other person, Apple analyses what went wrong with the relationship and accepts responsibility. “I could liken you to a werewolf the way you left me for dead, but I admit I provided a full moon” is the perfect opener to this track and exhibits masterful word play, not only does this showcase how both parties in the relationship were damaging to each other but “liken you to a werewolf” is similar to Lycan, a person capable of becoming a werewolf on a full moon. “we’re like a wishing well and a bolt of electricity” help to reinforce how Apple feels her and her lover and bad for each other. The line repeated through the song is “nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key” a genius analogy of both the music and the relationship. Apple’s masterful piano playing and the production of this album really shine on this track to create a heartfelt and honest masterpiece.

“Periphery” is a song where Apple seemingly projects her displeasure towards pretentious people and those who seek attention and will fall in line to feel acceptance. Apple uses lines like “Have them forge you a pedigree and then you’ll be, left to run the races, lame” which calls back to her VMA’s speech where she broke the mould and spoke out. 

“Regret” is a bitter and hateful song about a toxic relationship with an ex lover, “’member how we argued on the concept of regret, you were an expert even then but not me not yet, now all you gotta do’s remind me that we met, and there you got me, that’s how you got me, you taught me to regret”. The damning chorus for this song is shouted by Apple with an embittered tone, “I ran out of white dove feathers, to soak up the hot piss that comes from your mouth, everytime you address me. The ending for this song is similar to “Left Alone” with Apple repeating the line “Leave me alone” with just as much desperation as the track “Left Alone”

The closing tracks for “The Idler Wheel” leave the album on a more hopeful and up beat note, “Anything We Want” is a much happier song in contrast to the album and depicts a love with someone who it would appear Apple has been atleast close friends with since childhood, “lets pretend we’re 8 years old playing hookie, ill draw on the walls and you can play UFC rookie, then we’ll grow up, take our clothes off”. Apple is clearly smitten with the subject of the song “I kept touching my neck, to guide your eye to where I wanted you to kiss me when we find some time alone”. This song also features lots of beautiful imagery such as “like a neon zebra shaking rain off of stripes”. 

“The Idler Wheel” ends with the song “Hot Knife”, “Hot Knife” is unlike any other song on “The Idler Wheel”, if you only read the lyrics you could easily mistake “Hot Knife” for an inoffensive pop song however Fiona Apple and her Sister Maude sing together to build vocal harmonies that manage to elevate this song into a musical masterpiece. The instrumentation, like many songs on this album, is comprised of Apple making noise out of unconventional items. “Hot Knife” was released as the final single for “The Idler Wheel” with Fiona Apple’s ex, film director Paul Thomas Anderson, doing the music video as he did for all the singles on Apple’s 90s album “When The Pawn”. “Hot Knife” is a heart-warming, feel good love song.

One song that’s worth mentioning is “Largo”, “Largo” was featured as a bonus track for buying the album on iTunes or the Japanese version of the cd in 2012, in 2017 the version of “The Idler Wheel” on streaming platforms, was retitled to expanded edition to feature “Largo”. “Largo” was written about one of Apple’s favourite places, Club Largo in Los Angeles, Apple used to often play shows there either solo or with the group Watkins Family Hour. “Largo” is a very personal song and name drops many of her friends and frequent music collaborators. Apple suffered from bad alcoholism around this time which is likely a reason she no longer visits the club now that she is sober. 

The Idler Wheel is one of the most vulnerable and honest albums ever written and is often considered Fiona Apple’s magnum opus. The reason why fans of Apple’s music don’t mind waiting years for new releases is that every album features so much emotion and honesty as it acts as a way of Apple to rationalise and contextualise everything she has experienced and her fans are able to relate. Despite often portraying herself as hopeless or emotional in her songs, Apple’s uprightness is always prevalent as many of her songs such as one “Anything we want”. Apple once again proves herself as one of the most talented songwriters ever and reinforces her brilliance. 

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