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Review: Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel Is Wiser…

Miss Apple returns with a streak of optimism and a gorgeous new collection.  

Johnny Firecloudby Johnny Firecloud

She's still broken. She's still a child. She's still a hostage to her own fits of self-absorbed melodrama. Fiona Apple doesn't wear her heart on her sleeve – she claws at herself until it's beating from her shredded chest in full view, drowning us in the most elegantly arcing showers of blood. And with ten new, lovely, jarring offerings, she's back upon the altar, at it again. Better than ever.

It's been seven years since Fiona Apple has released a new album. The gauntly delicate chanteuse, who exploded in a Girl, Interrupted fury in 1996 with Tidal is finally releasing her new album, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do. Produced by Apple and multi-instrumentalist Charley Drayton, The Idler Wheel… is a new chapter in the war-torn and dog-eared diary of Apple's relationships, dreams and regrets, a comedy within a tragedy – and often vice versa.

The album is entirely free of electronics, a percussive thunder framing most of the material. It's muscle before melody, power before nuance, nearly every time around the carousel. Naturally, old loves and old lives are the fuel in this vessel, but one gets the sense that our beloved, tortured narrator has a much firmer grip on the reins these days. Sure, she still stands no chance of growing up, as she openly admits in "Valentine," but Idler Wheel is the most grown-up album she's ever made.

Granted, the same aforementioned song possesses a line as damaged and terrifyingly genuine as "While you were watching someone else / I stared at you and cut myself." She's a walking juxtaposition, same as she ever was, perpetually at odds with herself. Hell, she opens the album by admitting – no, declaring – that "every single night's a fight with my brain". At a crossroads of temperament and strength, the transition in song is a shimmering sea with intermittent stretches of wild turbulence and gorgeous, ethereal calm.

The girl who wrote the smash "Criminal" in 40 minutes while record execs were on a lunch break threatens to break into another hit with delirious consistency, but nearly every time she grabs the wheel and veers into the river, drowning us in an act of violent rawness. The guttural wailing in "Regret" and "Daredevil" take each song from pulsing beauty and hugely marketable charm to a brightly-lit naked expression of a broken girl, hemorrhaging passion. That is her wings and anchor, after all – the girl isn't made for the brightest lights and biggest stages. Her catches and complications are also her insulation from the leeching accompaniments of stardom.

"Nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key," she sings on "Werewolf," a beautifully pragmatic acceptance of the realities that allow her to release the regretful nostalgia. "Regret," on the other hand, is devastating. The takedown, Reznor-pensive chords framing the rubbing of the subject's face in the shit of his own cruelty, isn't a howling rage of accusation – it's something even more terrifying: a calm cadence of confidently reflective assessment. The pacing of the chorus alone is hypnotic, majestic in fleeting simplicity. She ends it all with a simmering "leave me alone," the final word escalating to a breathless falsetto as the homemade metronomic percussion ends. She realizes the true value of the weight her absence brings into his life. The girl has made a stunning soundtrack to pain throughout her career, and is now honing a balance in which the agony is reciprocated – but without the blade. And sometimes, those incisions are the worst.

Fiona does let go on occasion, lets herself be happy, accepts the help and the love, and the reflected beauty is downright overwhelming. The most romantically dedicated, shamelessly optimistic tune Apple's ever written, "Anything We Want" is a seduction of promise and hope, a guarantee of the skies clearing and the clock stopping, just around the corner. "I looked like a neon zebra shaking rain off her stripes," she shudders over muted chords and binaural clanging, and her intonation brings the the animation of spirit out in the metaphor.

"And the rivulets had you riveted to the places I wanted you to kiss me," she sways, an achingly beautiful moment of naked romance and desire. And when she says "After all, look around / It's happening, it's happening, it's happening now," you believe her. Your heart surges. The moment you didn't dare think would ever arrive truly has. She's here. The road is clear. You can roll out the map and decide the future, untethered to pain and settling.

Then the song ends, and we're brought back to the ground, bracing for the pendulum to pull the mood back into the pain Apple has made us accustomed to, a sendoff of sadness. But then something strange happens – "Anything"'s ante of love is doubled down. A deep-drum storm of gorgeous, building harmonies and shamelessly adorable metaphoric musings sees us off with an "awwww" smirk through the high note of "Hot Knife". A smitten exit is perhaps the biggest surprise of all on an album from a notorious recluse and emotional tornado, but that's certainly not a complaint.

Fiona has tempered her fury and found a cleaner strength in her catches and complications than ever before. She's still subjected to storms of her own devices, but rather than bleeding accusations and sorrow she allows the range of emotion to run its course, holding her pen until she's found a footing and a confidence to speak from. Having found it, the horizon widens, the color deepens, and we find ourselves more enchanted with Miss Apple than ever before.