Jonah Bromwich likes his wheels hot.
It’s somewhat disingenuous to pretend to have a holistic view of Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel… after one week. Unsurprisingly, I love the album, but Apple’s ornery poetics and penchant for syllable-stretching has me working through it at a much slower rate than, say, that Meek Mill mixtape.
What stands out for me is the way that Apple writes about herself. Her songs are creative, rooted in image and story but divorced from the notion of Fiona Apple as celebrity, a musical persona, or a representative of a particular decade. Ultimately, they end up saying very little about the sphere she occupies. Fiona’s appeal comes from transforming the details of her specific life into something that can appeal to a broad audience. It’s a Joycean way of working, and the key to Apple’s greatness. Though her songs are superficially about her, they become so archetypal that they manage to key in on the kinds of universal stories that have always made pop work.
By contrast, let’s take a look at Lena Dunham’s Girls, a good, occasionally great show, but one forced to grapple with how specifically it pertains to a certain demographic. Naturally, many of the experiences on the show are relatable but the trappings of spoiled, East Coast, white people are so glaring that it’s hard to see past them (and indeed, any legitimate criticism of the show pinpoints these issues). Dunham’s art — though worthy — hasn’t yet found a way to consistently transcend those borders. Because of that, we often think of the show as being about Dunham and her relatively small world. This limitation, though not necessarily the fault of the program, is an inevitable distraction.
Apple does a great job of divorcing herself from similar circumstances. Take the song on The Idler Wheel that would, if this were a Taylor Swift album, be a guilty-pleasure way of pandering to those on the periphery who are hungry for gossip. “Jonathan” is a song about the author Jonathan Ames, whom Apple dated relatively recently. But the song, though superficially “about” their relationship, doesn’t tell you anything about the sensitive man’s favorite drunkard/former showrunner. It’s all concerned with setting (Coney Island), imagery and tactile details (“little fist tugging on your forest chest”) and character (“I don’t want to talk about anything.”) I have a hard time believing that even the shallowest of listeners is going to take off his earphones and start chortling at the revelation that Jonathan Ames has a hairy chest, or that Apple was occasionally unwilling to talk about her feelings. You could not know who Apple or Ames is—in fact, the only cultural signifier in the song (and it’s a loose one) is Coney Island. And the song works so well, in part, because the specificity of its details aren’t hinged on a certain set of references or oblique ideas.
That’s an increasingly rare quality in a reference-happy 3xpost-modern world, and it’s the reason critics work themselves into a frenzy every time Apple releases an album. Many of the reviews that I’ve read of the album thus far have quoted the opening line of the opening song, “Every Single Day” and with good reason. They are: “Every single night, I endure the flight, of little wings of white-flamed, butterflies in my brain. These ideas of mine, percolate the mind, trickle down the spine, swarm the belly, swelling to a blaze—that’s when the pain comes in, like a second skeleton, trying to fit beneath the skin, I can’t fit the feelings in.” These lines are classic in their vision of the need to create, and even in some of the imagery that they’re working with (fire, butterflies as a symbol of the frantic.) It’s the seamless transition between the two images, the butterflies being “white-flamed” and then the “trickling” which echoes the idea of candle wax, where the originality of Apple’s vision lies.
The song depicts Apple’s experiences with both insomnia and creativity, but again, I don’t think that listeners of this song are going to shake their heads and say, “Boy, Fiona Apple sure is crazy.” The Promethean themes in “Every Single Day” tap into something essential about the human experience, something that isn’t affected by the usual divisions (nationality, race, economic status, you know…) Apple’s genius is that of the great artists that came before her. She delves so deeply into herself that she’s able to leave behind everything that doesn’t matter.