Fiona Apple revamps classic roots by stripping down sound, combining genres


Photo courtesy of Epic Records.

William Malsam

After keeping her fans in the dark for seven years, Fiona Apple reveals she has stripped down her sound and baldly demonstrates a new level of sophistication in her songwriting. Combining almost cryptic lyrics and lean piano, Apple creates a layered album which captures a wide range of powerful emotions.

Love, of course, is the primary focus of the album. Though her lyrics can be mysterious, Apple is very personal and at times confessional, which provides authenticity to her work. Her songwriting rejuvenates well-worn subjects, like budding romance, with vibrant images (“neon zebra shaking rain off of her stripes”) and creative rhyme schemes that break the toilsome routine of predictable love songs.

Her voice propels her poetry to its fullest potential; it carries an authority from experience. She explores the depths of her voice as an instrument, and from the highest pitch to the lowest whisper, she delivers. Her passions even push her to a broken scream on “Regret” in which she howls, “I ran out of white dove feathers.” Her inability to cleanly hit these notes only add to the performance, and her splintered cry embodies the pain of regret.

Musically, most of her songs consist of piano and percussion. She has shed nearly all extravagances, and what’s left is just a woman and a piano communicating with her audience. Her compositions are beyond merely drums and piano, however; she constructs a variety of percussive sounds ranging from what appears to be a sound loop of footsteps trudging through gravel on “Periphery” to knives and forks banging on jelly jars on “Hot Knife.” The rhythms are often fast-paced and chaotic, matching well with her bare piano.

Apple elegantly combines this minimalist style with many genres including pop, jazz and even classical. Her more traditional pop songs are simple, melodic compositions that still manage to be unpredictable and exciting. Just when you think it’s a basic love song on piano, Apple throws in an instrumental jazz break in “Valentine” and an eerie back track of child voices on “Werewolf.” “Daredevil” and “Jonathan” are impressive in their structure. They supersede classical approaches to songwriting and manage to create a touching and overarching sonic impression of her emotions. “Jonathan,” for example, has a see-saw effect, mimicking the back and forth nature of Apple’s affections.

In “The Idler Wheel…,” Fiona Apple manages the ever elusive feat of revamping her sound while staying true to her roots. Fans will find what they have always loved about her, plus something new and refreshing.