Known henceforth as "The Idler Wheel" (because come on), this latest release is as intrepid as the industry has come to expect from Apple, who defies convention in terms of voice, style and appearance not because it is necessarily in her nature to rebel, but because she remains determined to make absolutely clear her intentions and ability.
"Every Single Night" begins the album in reverse, if that makes sense, with a mashup of a hushed lullaby and a full-throated, chanting bedtime prayer. The verses themselves sound simple enough to be Apple fiddling around at her piano, half-forming words and trying out the high sweetness possible in her voice.
In "Daredevil," the lyric "Don't let me ruin me / I may need a chaperone" repeats over constricted percussion that sounds like a slightly-crooked roulette wheel. It's not just Apple's lyrics that describe the chances she's likely to take, and the title isn't just a clever name. Apple has always been very concerned with composition, with how the nuts and bolts of a song reflect the sometimes anomalous ideas in her head. This means she's either hyper self-aware or hyper self-confident, or perhaps an extremely fortunate combination of the two that drives a person to write love songs filled with crashing piano, foreboding bass drum and the stops and starts that no one else in their right mind would put in a ballad. For Apple, though, and really anyone else who knows so certainly what they are doing (Amanda Palmer, maybe, or Tori Amos), it works.
"The Idler Wheel" is not meant to be easy to listen to; it's not difficult to enjoy, but Apple's playing is still very much influenced by jazz and its unconventional rhythms. Also, her phrasing can be twisty and at times delightfully clever. The first line of "Werewolf" is "I would liken you to a werewolf the way you left me for dead," and although this could be word nerd hopefulness on my part, I dearly hope that the play on liken/lycan(thrope) wasn't unintentional. Also, I wonder if her voice on "Werewolf" was purposefully the opposite of vulpine, instead innocently soft and tricky with its disguise.
Apple does not sing comfortably. She spits, she growls, she propels her voice from her throat like a beast, lurid, bellicose and furious, sometimes breaking apart the formalities of words and expanding into vocal exercises. "Daredevil" and "Periphery" in particular are showcases for the eccentricities of her voice, just as songs like "Left Alone" and, again, "Periphery" seem like opportunities for Apple to stretch her hands across the keys for deep, rolling scales and other instrumental experiments. "Periphery" closes with a boot-scrape effect that doesn't do much for the body of the song, although it seems like one of those aural quirks chosen by Thom Yorke because he just likes the sound of it (see: "Myxomatosis," because there's no other reason to repeat the name of a disease that kills off rabbit colonies en masse).
Apple's early debut in the industry (she released her first album, "Tidal," in 1996 when she was just 19) and tendency to take several years to release albums has earned her the unfair expectation that the next album, no matter how far apart from her first, will be somehow more grown up than the last, more complicated, insightful and preternaturally brilliant. It's worth pointing out that while Apple was once touted as a child prodigy, she never really made a child's version of music. Her earlier lyrics are admittedly of a singer-songwriter sort, but so was everything in the mid-'90s, and hers were at least more sophisticated than anything Taylor Swift is going to come up with. Apple's musicianship and sagacious attitude made her more of an ingénue, and while some of her youthful self-righteousness and bravura has worn away, she still sounds very much like the adult she may have always been.