Song of the Day #1,483: ‘Werewolf’ – Fiona Apple

It’s been seven years since Fiona Apple’s last album, the much-delayed Extraordinary Machine. That record was initially leaked in one form before being officially released in another, and speculation was rampant that studio pressure had forced Apple to give the songs a more mainstream sound.

She denied that, and it doesn’t really seem like her. I’d expect her to never release another album in her life rather than something she wasn’t 100% behind.

Apple’s new album, The Idler Wheel… (that’s shorthand for the 23-word poem that serves as the record’s full title), serves as a stark reminder of how little her muse is constrained by outside forces. The woman who wrote, recorded and produced this album didn’t take orders from anybody.

I can just picture the faces of the record studio brass when Apple turned in The Idler Wheel…. This album consists almost entirely of piano, percussion and the rawest vocals she has ever recorded. Gone are the swelling strings, horns and exotic instruments of her collaborations with Jon Brion. Gone are the hip-hop inflections that Mike Elizondo brought to the official version of Extraordinary Machine.

Apple initially recorded demos of several of these songs on piano and accented them with found sounds — feet walking on gravel, a water bottle thrown down a staircase, the whirring of factory machinery.

Then somewhere along the way she realized that she wasn’t recording demos… she was recording the album itself. She brought in drummer Charley Drayton as co-producer and the two of them created or captured pretty much every sound on the record.

The result is stark, strange, sometimes difficult — and quite possibly the finest work she’s done. And that’s coming from somebody who considers 1999’s When the Pawn… one of the best albums I’ve ever heard.

Stripped of embellishment, these ten new songs stand on their own as Apple’s most mature and fully realized compositions. She blends discordant notes with moments of aching beauty, conveys as much in the silence between measures as in the pounding of the keys. Lyrically, she is alternately fierce and playful (she is certainly the first songwriter to rhyme “orotund mutt” with “moribund slut”).

What’s refreshing is how often she turns her critical eye on herself, taking or sharing the blame for failed relationships. “How can I ask anyone to love me when all I do is beg to be left alone?” she wonders in ‘Left Alone.’ In today’s song, she wistfully mourns a lost love with whom she couldn’t quite make a match, saying “we can still support each other, all we got to do is avoid each other… nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key.”

It’s frustrating to be a Fiona Apple fan. She has released only four albums during a career that has spanned 17 years. After a promising debut at 19, she has released three masterpieces — the kind of work that makes everything else I hear sound like background noise. Will I be nearing 50 before I get the chance to hear another? Will she?

I hope not. But in the meantime, I’ll cherish her latest gem, the best album I’ve heard this year and in quite some time.

I could liken you to a werewolf the way you left me for dead
But I admit that I provided a full moon
And I could liken you to a shark the way you bit off my head
But then again I was waving around a bleeding open wound

But you are such a super guy til the second you get a whiff of me
We are like a wishing well and a bolt of electricity
But we can still support each other
All we got to do is avoid each other
Nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key
Nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key

The lava of a volcano
Shot up hot from under the sea
One thing leads to another
And you made an island of me

And I could liken you to a chemical
The way you made me compound a compound
But I’m a chemical too, inevitable you and me wouldn’t mix
And I could liken you to a lot of things but I always come around
Cause in the end I’m a sensible girl
I know the fiction of the fix

But you are such a super guy til the second you get a whiff of me
We are like a wishing well and a bolt of electricity
But we can still support each other
All we got to do is avoid each other
Nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key
Nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key

2 thoughts on “Song of the Day #1,483: ‘Werewolf’ – Fiona Apple

  1. Dana says:

    High praise, indeed! While I am not as avid an Apple fan as you have been, she is, without question a mega-talented songwriter. If this song is representative of the album as a whole, I have little doubt that I too would enjoy it.

  2. Amy says:

    Why would it be such a bad thing if she were to only produce an album every 10 – 15 years? You seem to appreciate and celebrate filmmakers who are far less prolific than their peers, so I’m not sure why your standard should be any different. As long as when she does ultimately release an album it’s one you love, what difference does it make if there is one (think Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, for an example from another art form) or hundreds (Elvis Costello – maybe not hundreds, but certainly a whole lot)?

    Meanwhile, this review should be published somewhere besides your blog, where too few Fiona Apple fans (or, indeed, music fans, in general) can read it. It’s captivating, informative, funny…

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