Is Fiona Apple's fourth release the best album of the year? Or the most confounding? Hey, can it be both?
Critics reviewing her latest effort seem determined to emphasize to readers that it's the very opposite of easy listening... and then, in most cases, to assure them that it's worth the harrowing effort, rather like scaling a potentially deadly mountaintop. Rarely do reviews come with so many warnings and caveats.
The Washington Post's Allison Stewart gushes that it "may be Apple's best album yet, though it's the one you'll least want to hear again...It gets better every time you hear it. And yet: It will go out of its way to make you not like it."
"You can't half-listen to a Fiona Apple album. You really have to work at it," says Entertainment Weekly's Melissa Maerz, in an A-grade review. "All of this might make The Idler Wheel sound like more trouble than it's worth. That's definitely not the case. Like Apple herself, it's highly confessional and creative and temperamental, and will probably make you fall crazy in love... You have to give yourself over to The Idler Wheel in a way you probably haven't done since you were a kid, before jobs and other adult responsibilities claimed the long hours you spent curled up by your stereo speakers. It isn't easy listening. But it's worth it."
Or is it? Jim Farber, veteran critic of the New York Daily News, takes a minority stand by saying not even Fiona is worth quite this much trouble. "Apple's fourth album — her first in 7 long years — seems hellbent on repelling the listener at every turn. It's an itchy, twitchy assault: a manic episode in sound," he writes. "The Idler ends up as an album I'll surely talk about, ponder, and respect but never once listen to again."
For the record, the full title of the album is The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do, which may serve as its own possible barrier to entry for the trepidatious.
The Los Angeles Times' lead critic, Randall Roberts, is not alone in offering the album a four-star review, though he is one of the very few to dispense with warning readers about any potentially off-putting qualities.
"A songwriter whose greatest flaw is evidenced in the extended title, the Los Angeles singer and pianist has on her latest record ironically offered her most focused, refined and best-edited album in the 16 years since her (one-worded) debut, Tidal," writes Roberts. "The Idler Wheel is an exquisitely rendered work, with as many thrilling moments of silence and space as with vocal drama. It's essential 2012 listening for anyone interested in popular music as art. And like all great albums, it's an encapsulation of all that has come before it as filtered through a singular aesthetic... [The album] embodies the thrill of being not only a music fan but also a fan of the human spirit in all its wildly dramatic and emotionally ravaged glory."
The Chicago Tribune's Greg Kot, giving it three and a half out of four stars, describes the stripped down and raw production that complements or stands in contrast to the tricky compositions themselves:
"In the past, Apple has couched some of the volatility in her songs inside pop-leaning arrangements. But with multi-instrumentalist Charley Drayton as her coproducer, she reduces most of the songs on The Idler Wheel to voice, piano and percussion. It makes for a raw, unsettling listen, tempered by shots of dark humor ... Jagged arrangements, lurching rhythms and off-kilter melodies echo the singer's lacerating words. The relationships in these songs are as twisted and unpredictable as her vocals... Apple's vocals break and turn with all the haphazard logic of unguarded thoughts, her piano scurrying to keep up or pausing to rain down chords like hammers. Drayton's array of drums and percussion nick-knacks talk back in spasms and flurries... Apple isn't out to soothe or seduce. She wants blood, and sometimes it's her own."
The word "lacerating" also pops up in the Boston Globe's review. "The Idler Wheel is pop music as self-flagellation. Even her voice is a form of punishment — lacerating a lyric, cooing the next one, and gripping you at turns. Sometimes you don't want to hear what Apple will say next, but you also can't tune it out... Through 10 uneasy songs mostly set to dirge-like piano melodies and inscrutable percussion, Apple exorcises the demons that constantly keep her on edge... Apple has been here before, but it makes her new album no less arresting. Where other songwriters might mask such a dark night of the soul, Apple stares it dead in the eye."
The Post declares that "it's as brilliant as you'd hoped, as surly as a teenager and as temperamental as a thoroughbred. These are acoustic ballads with bared teeth, draped over skeleton frames of piano and oddball percussion... Its melodies will hold you at arm's length. It luxuriates in its dissonance — to a perverse extent. Perfectly promising songs will trail off into awkwardly syncopated bursts of sound, or howls of rage, or uncomfortable refrains. Occasionally, a jazz passage will float by — otherwise, you shouldn't expect too much. It hasn't always been thus: Apple's past releases, like her last, 2005's rollicking and altogether remarkable Extraordinary Machine have leaned toward stick-to-your-ribs, Gilbert and Sullivan-esque pop. But Idler Wheel is an experiment in musical garment-rending calculated to expose every nerve ending down to gristle and bone, not to please."
To some, that might sound like a threat, but the Post, like the album's other fervent admirers, means it very much as a promise.