Album review: Fiona Apple's 'The Idler Wheel'

Photo by Dan Monick

It’s hard to say which is more surprising: that Fiona Apple has managed to collect herself enough to emerge after what was largely a self-imposed exile, or that 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” (Clean Slate/Epic), is her strongest in years. (She performs Friday, June 22, at MGM Grand at Foxwoods, and Saturday, June 23, at the Calvin Theatre in Northampton.)

“The Idler Wheel” is just her fourth album, and first since 2005. It’s often a discomfiting listen, full of songs that alternate between stormy and fragile as they veer in unexpected directions. The arrangements rightly emphasize Apple’s throaty voice and piano, with electronic and rhythmic adornments here and there. She sings with dusky bemusement at the start of “Daredevil,” accompanying herself with tuneful stabs of piano before pushing her voice to the edge of ragged, then dialing it back again.

Her complex, reeling piano part on “Left Alone” provides cover for self-lacerating lyrics, though she drops the musical shield on “Valentine,” playing a soulful pop vamp as she describes in mournful tones the paralyzing effects of her infatuation with a paramour. She sings softly atop a wobbly rhythm on “Regret,” and plays lush chords over a heavy, syncopated rhythm on “Anything We Want,” striking a balance between playful and fearful when she sings the refrain.

Apple over the past seven years has certainly demonstrated an understanding of the fearful part of having the freedom to do anything she wanted: after a disastrous tour in 2006, she barely did anything (for public consumption, at least). She seems to have put all that behind her now, and for all the fragility she shows on “The Idler Wheel …,” Apple has rarely sounded more confident.

— Eric R. Danton

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