For the Records is a series of articles by special guest writer Mike McCubbins on his favorite albums of the 2010s. Click here to read the entire series.
When I wrote about ten of my favorite albums ten years ago, I listed a few artists who had made it unscathed out of the ‘90s and through the Aughts too, my fandom still intact, my anticipation of their newest efforts a given. Among them I counted Fiona Apple, Cake, and Ben Folds.
Looking back, by the end of the Aughts, Ben and I had already split ways with 2008’s Way to Normal. My reliance on him for tightly composed three-minute melodramas that started with “Brick” on 1997’s Whatever and Ever Amen, held through his crossover to a solo career and to 2005’s Songs for Silverman. I lost my way into him with Way to Normal.
In 1996, Cake’s Fashion Nugget and it’s propulsive single “The Distance” was unavoidable, not that I ever tried. Then Cake won me over big time with their follow-up, Prolonging the Magic. Their pessimistic view of modernity as told through a pastiche of 20th century genres seemed ever fresh. My love for them held through the Aughts, and remains, though the draw is increasingly nostalgic. Their only release in the Teens is 2011’s Showroom of Compassion, which kept up the cranky act they had perfected over so many albums but was beginning to lose the punch of John McCrea’s mordant social commentary, which had peaked with 2001’s Comfort Eagle. The magic prolonged further than I could have ever expected.
Back in 1996, another track was just as ubiquitous: Fiona Apple’s smoky and seductive “Criminal” off her debut album Tidal, a collection of angry and world-weary red flags from a 19-year-old-going-on-40.
What would an angel say?/ The devil wants to know.
Fiona has given us three albums since: 1999’s When the Pawn…, 2005’s Extraordinary Machine, and 2012’s The Idler Wheel… Each has been an unflinching foray into the wet gears of modern love as told from the POV of music’s most reliable unreliable narrator.
I let the beast in too soon/ I don’t know how to live without my hand on his throat/ I fight him always and still/
Fiona is ever battling demons. She wins as many as she loses. She’s as prickly as she is sensitive. She writes scathing critiques of former lovers alongside conciliatory tracks that somberly admit her faults. Fiona is the bruised hero of the hard-to-love. This is nowhere captured better than on The Idler Wheel…, her tour-de-force of self-doubt, indignance, regret, and attraction.
From the opener “Every Single Night”:
My heart’s made of parts of all that surround me/ And that’s why the devil just can’t get around me.
For those unfamiliar, or for those just needing a refresher after seven years since her last album, Idler’s front-end tracks are a recalibration, a reminder that this is still that troubled girl you couldn’t handle, still struggling to handle herself. But, if her music can be seen as attempting to reconcile with her fraught emotional landscape through verse, there is still nobody playing at her level.
After such an introduction, Fiona spends most of the album moving through hot and cold love stories, negotiating the dimensions of blame, loss, growth, self-reliance, and self-regard as they bounce off significant others and back to her court where the angels and demons sort them into diss-tracks or soul searchers.
One for her on “Regret”:
I ran out of white doves’ feathers/ To soak up the hot piss that comes from your mouth/ Every time you address me.
And one for them on “Left Alone”:
I’m hard/ Too hard to know/... How can I ask anyone to love me/ When all I do is beg to be left alone
Idler is home to some of Fiona’s darkest material yet, but also to some of the most buoyant, and she is generous enough to save her brightest gems for last. “Anything We Want” and “Hot Knife” get lost in the joy of attraction and camaraderie.
On “Anything we want”:
My scars were reflecting the mist in your headlights/ I look like a neon zebra shaking rain off her stripes/ And the rivulets had you riveted/ To the places that I wanted you to kiss me when we find some time alone.
She keeps the wildlife imagery going on the closer “Hot Knife”—
If I’m butter then he’s a hot knife/ He makes my heart a cinemascope screen showing the dancing bird-of-paradise.
—which might be the most beautiful image on an album full of unforgettable images.
“Hot Knife”’s jazzy, minimalist drum and piano instrumentals helps pull into focus the entire album’s stark avant-garde sound. It’s easy to get lost in all the wordplay and forget about the raw energy that builds in the Idler’s staccato piano stabs, naked a capella vocals, and nervous drums which never seems anything less than a direct extension of Fiona’s revving and braking heart strings. And that’s really the difference between this and her previous albums, most notably The Idler Wheel…’s… spiritual predecessor When the Pawn…, with such spare production, it’s a more raw, intimate experience. It doesn’t feel like Fiona-the-singer fronting a band, it feels like every sound on Idler grew out of Fiona Apple.
It’s been seven years since The Idler Wheel…, and I’m not sure when to expect more music. But I’m certain I’ll be there listening whenever it comes. Twenty-three years and counting and Fiona hasn’t let me down once. Fiona-4-Lyfe. | Mike McCubbins