Growing up it was me, mom, my two sisters and, often enough, a few of my sisters’ friends. My cousins mostly girls and my aunts around often. At most of the jobs I’ve had my female co-workers have always liked me more than the bros do. And, by far, my music and book collections tend to be far more female-centric than those of my friends’. Needless to say, I like women. I think, as a gender, women tend to be stronger, saner, more honest and less destructive than men. That said, I’ve never found it easy to write about female artists. I tend to love Fiona Apple’s work but, outside of simply saying “I like this song a lot” or “her vocals are as good as any around,” I’m usually left mum. So yes, I think very highly of Ms. Apple. I consider her to be one of my favorite female singer / songwriters ever and easily one of the most consistent ballad writers and album-makers of her generation. But still, I’m not sure how to talk about her songs. They’re just so … so … feminine. In powerful, vulnerable, jazzy, poppy, angry, naked, beautiful ways. And I like that, because I learn from it.
When Apple’s last studio record, Extraordinary Machine, was released, I was 25 years old and Fiona was nearly 28. It was her third record in nine years and it was, rightfully so, one of the most celebrated discs released in 2005. Things have changed a lot since then. For me, for the world and, of course, for music fans and the record industry. But, for Fiona, the only thing that’s seemingly different is that she seems to be quite a bit skinnier. And maybe more focused in her art. Machine still stands loud as a modern classic – an album so good that few modern artists could dream of topping it. But that’s just what Apple has done with her new record, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do. The songs here are lean, mean, raw and focused, Apple’s sense of adventure functioning at new levels of courage and bombast. A disc peppered with little details that are beautiful and endearing at every turn. A voice as memorable and purposeful as any on the planet. A set of 10 songs driven, at its core, by a combination of piano, vocals and words that never feel anything short of vibrant and vigorous.
What’s odd about this record, when compared to her other three releases, is that I get the impression that Fiona approached these songs – and the recording of these songs – in a more laid-back manner than ever before. A sign of maturity or just further steps towards absolute mastery of her art? Tough to say, but when “Valentine” plays I feel as if I’m hearing the kind of classic that will be played and covered and coveted for generations. And there are seven or eight of those tracks here. Or maybe ten of ‘em. The words womanly, powerful and true, the vocals soaring and the arrangements masterful and surprisingly strange, I have no fear in calling Idler Wheel one of the year’s most impressive collections so far. And certainly the kind of disc that I believe in, even if I’m still digesting it’s endless turns and poetic confessions and pleas. The Idler Wheel is a record that will have a legacy; and one that will most certainly influence a generation of female writers, singers and thinkers. And maybe some of those bros, too.