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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 replete with overwrought poetics about her struggle to balance a deep desire for love and an overwhelming skittishness. 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-ridden, 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. She 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 (i.e., herself) and the eloquent, imaginative way she expresses it. Are there blown metaphors and awkward, egg-headed rhymes? Sure, but the payoff is 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."
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Certainly, such obsessive self-analysis verges on pretension or long ago crossed the border, depending upon your perspective. But Apple's deft, unsparing use of the scalpel separates her from mere self-promoters and mythologizers. Like a skilled self-deprecator, she exhibits a disarming honesty, and the surrounding emotional 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 has fashioned the hook. Musically, she offers a breathtaking sonic roller coaster 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 drums by coproducer Charles Drayton — creates 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 snap 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 famous person living in Los Angeles (OK, Venice) 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 cutouts typically hawked by 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.