You can’t half-listen to a Fiona Apple album. You really have to work at it, analyzing the elliptical lyrics, carefully following piano runs that zig when you think they’ll zag. Her fourth full-length, which is called (deep breath!) The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do, is no exception. It took Apple seven years to make, and even understanding the title requires you to spend some time with Wikipedia. (An idler wheel is the part of an engine that’s connected to all the other parts but doesn’t propel anything — a metaphor, Apple has said, for people like her, who look as if they’re doing nothing when they’re actually feeling everything at once.) Delving into classical music, jazz, art-rock, and show tunes, this is an album that will make you stay up late, playing each song over and over, trying to answer the questions it stirs up. Like, what does Apple mean when she sings that? she’s ”a neon zebra, shaking rain off her stripes”? What’s making that strange crunching noise at the end of ”Periphery”? What is a ”truck stomper,” and why is it listed as an instrument in the credits?
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. She and her co-producer Charley Drayton have mostly stripped down the arrangements to piano and percussion — the clever ”beats” include field recordings of machines at a plastic-bottle factory and pebbles thrown down a garbage chute — so there’s room to hear her parakeet heart beating wildly, feeling every emotion. Swinging between minor-key gloom and Broadway bombast, she hollers over children’s giddy screams on ”Werewolf,” threatens her ex on the menacing ”Valentine,” and delivers a furious Native American warrior cry on ”Every Single Night,” which finds her admitting, ”Every single night’s/A fight with my brain.”
There’s so much struggle here that when the one happy song arrives, near the end, she’s earned it. From the moment the pots-and-pans intro begins on ”Anything We Want,” Apple manages to re-create the rush of a first crush, singing about loving something the way she did when she was 8. Listening to her, you’ll know exactly what she means. 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. A