“I just want to feel everything,” sings Fiona Apple in “Every Single Night,” the lead track and first single on her fourth album, which, just like her second one, comes bearing a title so ridiculous it dares you to dismiss her. She’s got the problem that afflicts sensitive folks; that of piercing awareness. But instead of running from it, she repeats those words like a mantra to help her endure the pain that comes with perception, truth, love and all those other difficult things that make life worth living. And while she’s doing that, she lets us know what the rest of the album is like: There’s Apple’s piano, her voice (sometimes overdubbed), a celeste, some percussion, a sound effect or two, and not much else.
But there’s a lot of Apple here. Throughout The Idler Wheel, she’s front and center so simply that the starkness feels almost avant-garde. As she admits on that first cut, she’s fighting with her brain and there is no referee — just Apple, her drummer/co-producer Charley Drayton, and generous doses of silence between notes. Nothing comes between her and us. This is the polar opposite of all those claustrophobic, super-compressed, “loudness wars” records, and the extra space gives the 34-year-old songwriter the room to be baldly ferocious, particularly when she’s vulnerable. “Gimme, gimme, gimme what you got in your mind in the middle of the night,” she implores in “Daredevil” with a lust so unguarded it borders on wacky. But it’s nevertheless inviting, because she’s musically, as well as emotionally, naked.
The Idler Wheel is a spectacularly erotic record. Its contours are irregular like the human body, constantly shifting its weight with the way Apple leans into her piano and then pushes away from it. And within that instability lies sadness: She sings a sweet but barbed “Jonathan” to her ex, writer Jonathan Ames, and in the very next song she’s “Left Alone,” admitting that she’s making that isolation inevitable over a suitably restless piano riff that, like a lot of the album, recalls those ageless Vince Guaraldi jazz scores for Peanuts TV specials. But there’s no melancholy: “Nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key,” she shrugs in “Werewolf.” And although they’re typically played and sung with disarming gusto, these songs often do exactly that. In the slowest, angriest one, “Regret,” she screams so hard that the words almost fall away. Apple’s feeling everything here the way she wants to. She fights the good fight.