Like any great artist, Fiona Apple is uncompromising in pursuit of her muse. Her vision is exceptionally personal and uniquely her own. Beyond intimate, it runs to the brink of claustrophobia. Most confessional songwriters wear their hearts on their sleeves; Apple pulls the still pumping mess out of her chest and dissects it on the table. Perhaps this bare-wire emotion is natural, given Apple's hermitic nature, popping up only every six or seven years when she releases an album. But is she a genius or just spectacularly idiosyncratic?
The main argument against Apple is the narrow subject matter that consumes her — her battle with herself. "Every single night's a fight with my brain," she sings on the opening track of her new album, The Idler Wheel. Since releasing her 1996 debut, Tidal, at age 18, her albums have been extended diary entries chronicling in overwrought poetics her struggle to balance her desire for love and an overwhelmingly skittish nature. This conundrum finds perfect expression on the track "Left Alone," in which she wonders, "How can I ask anyone to love me when all I do is beg to be left alone?"
Angst-laden, egocentric self-loathing is the soup of the day for teens, so we might have expected Apple to outgrow the drama. But this wasn't a passing phase. Apple really is a tortured artist. Does she bring it on herself? Of course. Don't we all? What makes Apple so polarizing and magnetic (she generally either attracts or repulses you) is her unflinching dedication to the project (herself) and the eloquent, imaginative way she expresses it. Are there blown metaphors and awkward, egg-headed rhymes? Sure, but the payoff's higher as well, such as when she makes a distinction between what's suffered and the suffering: "My ills are reticulate, my woes are granular."
Certainly, such obsessive self-analysis verges on pretension or long ago crossed the border, depending on your perspective. But Apple's deft, unsparing use of the scalpel separates her from mere self-promoters and mythologizers. Like a skilled self-deprecator, her honesty disarms, and the surrounding emotionally cacophony can be as arresting and irresistible as a car crash. It's hard not to stare and murmur, "Thank God that's not me," knowing in your heart that beneath the surface we all look an awful lot alike.
That's the bait. What's so frequently overlooked amid the hyper-emotionality is how keenly Apple's fashioned the hook. Musically, the drapes match the carpet, offering a breathtaking sonic rollercoaster through minor key elegies and brash piano rock. Just as you can hear greater maturity and less inscrutable double talk in Apple's lyrics, The Idler Wheel benefits from a more straightforward sonic approach. It's still fussy and self-consciously strange, but the pared instrumentation — mostly just piano, vocals, and drummer/co-producer Charles Drayton — offers a less cluttered soundstage for Apple's self-immolating theatrics, amplifying their hold. Less is more.
At a time in our culture when authenticity holds sway, Apple offers a revealing, very human set of contradictions buoyed by chronic, unsparing earnestness. (She did a fashion shoot in which she encouraged the photographer to shoot her bunions so that other girls with bunions might not feel bad.) Simply put, she's a real-life character. She's probably the only person living in Los Angeles (okay, Venice) not on welfare who doesn't drive a car. This colorful kookiness dovetails with her open-book emotionality to give the shape and dimension of a real person and not just the cardboard cut-outs typically hawked by the major labels. Steadfast individuality doesn't necessarily make her a great artist, but it's an important trapping that, along with a lively, creative nature, compensates for a lot of sins.