Fiona Apple, "The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw, and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do" (Epic) -- Whipping cords, maybe, but piano wire works just as well in the service of self-flagellation. Fiona Apple has made it an art -- her elliptical lyrics and oblique music fashioning both silken and steely threads with which, like a monk, she mortifies her flesh for our enlightenment. "That's where the pain comes in," she sings through tight lips, trembling, over a toy piano in the delicate, Tim Burton-worthy opener, "Every Single Night." She's completely on edge, struggling to keep it together, could snap at any moment. The nerves aren't wrenching her gut, they're the "white-flamed butterflies in my brain," and she warns, "Every single night / is a fight with my brain." Tonight, it's clear, she may lose the battle.
Whew, and that's just track one.
Returning to action after seven years, Apple, 34, is as emotionally taut as ever on "The Idler Wheel," possibly her most arresting record to date. These 10 uneasy-listening gems condense the dark, lurching cabarets of Kurt Weill and Tom Waits into claustrophobic headspaces. Each slice of manic panic is made all the more powerful by its quivering restraint, heard in the lyrics, of course, but also in this album's sparse arrangements. Her piano, with which she has as tortured a relationship as her apparent lovers, is a weapon used for melody and percussion. Working mostly alone with Charlie Drayton and his few other instruments (but often unusual ones, like marimba and celeste, loops and, er, pillows), Apple makes sure each line, each note, packs some psychological punch. It's exhausting, yet it's not easy to turn away.
While the compositions are often playful (and "Daredevil" is deceptively so), Apple's white-knuckled words are not. "I don't want to talk about anything," she lies to "Jonathan." "I root for you, I love you," she tells her "Valentine," but also, "While you were watching someone else / I stared at you and cut myself." Back away slowly, but stay within earshot. Even she admits some distance is good: "We could still support each other / all we gotta do's avoid each other" ("Werewolf"). (It's such a jagged little pill British music mag NME accidentally ran a photo of Alanis Morissette with its "Idler" review.) Her clear confidence sells every crisis -- in concert as well as on record. Real and rollicking, Apple may be poisoned but she's more compelling than ever.