Fiona Apple's new album is one of the best and one of the worst records of the summer. In fact, I can't remember the last time an album has been such a perfect amalgam of an artist's virtues and faults.
At its worst, The Idler Wheel ... is jazzy pablum, a schematic so mannered and self-reflexive that it borders on parody of "that kind of" woman (à la Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan, Poe, Eleanor Friedberger, Joanna Newsom, Feist, et al.). But Apple's best corollary might be the filmmaker Wes Anderson, whose Moonrise Kingdom is also a perfect distillation of all the reasons why people who love his movies love them, and why those who hate his movies hate them. The Idler Wheel ... is just like that. Apple is, per Anderson, so committed to her vision and so exhaustively herself that her work can feel airless and claustrophobic.
But The Idler Wheel ... is also gripping and fascinating. Songs like "Valentine" are small revelations—as stagy as a show tune, as guttural as anything PJ Harvey has ever done. There's no one but Apple who could make the understated refrain of, "You, you, you, you," feel so accusatory but nonchalant.
Fiona Apple, the persona, is a raw, exposed nerve and also an ethereal presence that hovers above human drama. That's not an easy paradox to embody. Apple makes it seem effortless.