When Fiona Apple's latest album, The Idler Wheel..., leaked last spring, critics immediately singled out the singer's shrieks and screams. Her fervor -- which will be presumably be on display in Apple's sold-out show at the Fox Theater tomorrow, July 28 -- seemed a strange digression from the clever-cool pose we'd come to expect from our pop stars. Writers celebrated her bravery, of course. But they also explained it away by pointing up a nuttiness that long ago (the '90s!) was made part of her mystique, when she became the woman famous for falling apart -- at televised award shows and on records her label refused to release. The Los Angeles Times' Randall Roberts summed up the general critical attitude toward The Idler Wheel... when in June he wrote, "Like Apple's doodles, which are peppered throughout the CD booklet, her songs at first look to be the works of a talented diarist. But they blossom once they hit air."
To my ears, The Idler Wheel... is all blossom and no seed. It's big, beautiful, and bold. It isn't the intimate album I've read about again and again, from Pitchfork to Entertainment Weekly. It's airy and expansive, almost cosmic in its power to ring true. The pauses and silence that often swell between the verses open the songs up. They don't encircle the singer the way the quiet from your typical singer-songwriter session can.
And what about the stuff Apple puts between the silences? The growl she lets out midway through the album's second track, "Daredevil," say? That could very well be our entire culture's Charlie Brown moment -- our "Good grief! How the fuck did we get here, Snoopy?" In the chorus she screams "Look at me!" Is there a musical passage that more concisely sums up what this age of self-branding has turned us into?
Yet, I don't think this was Apple's intention, to nail us down so squarely. Of course, part of what makes it possible for her to do so is her muscular talent and intelligence. But more important is her aloofness. She claims not to listen to new music; she doesn't go online (in a recent interview, she referred to Google as "this whole Google thing"); it's hard to imagine her breathing onto an iPhone with that slack mouth so many of our friends wear for most their days anymore. If Apple is expressing something essential and largely forgotten about what it means to be a human, it's not because she's the "voice of our generation." Quite the opposite. Apple's hitting the right notes at the right time because, on The Idler Wheel..., she's emerged as a kind of recording angel, working off-grid, on herself, where only one cool toy is allowed -- her mind.
Listen to the new Fiona Apple album and you might hear her quirks -- the migraine clarity of such lyrics as "every single night's a fight with my brain," for instance. But listen harder and you'll hear the suppressed vulnerability we all share these days, but are too distracted to feel. An entire zeitgeist's woe has found its vent in The Idler Wheel..., if for no other reason than Apple's clear disregard for the technology that has diverted our attention while drawing us together.
With all due respect to Randall Roberts, I don't hear anything as small and private as a diary in The Idler Wheel.... Instead, I hear something big and elemental. Something like the wind, howling through a canyon that, over time, has been opened a mile wide by our fury and our fury's neglect. It's not all that unique or clever, what Apple's expressing: that's why it's so beautiful. If the emotion she lays bare seems strange to us, that's only because we've forgotten what emotions are. But the woman famous for falling apart seems perfectly poised -- yep, poised -- to remind us.