Fiona Apple - The Idler Wheel Is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and the Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do | Album review

Fiona Apple returns in an emotional burst, with a raw record that doesn’t lack in pop smarts.

Fiona Apple

Fiona Apple

How did Fiona Apple become a hip folk hero? Is it because she doesn’t play the fame game, or is it because she already did and lived to tell the tale? There’s more than a bit of the survivor in Apple, and even if her reported trials rarely rise above the relatively trivial—relationships—she exudes a certain toughness bolstered by her independence. Nobody tells Apple what to do, let alone when to do it.

The Idler Wheel… follows several years of relative silence. Her last album arrived in 2005. While it’s not a conspicuously radical work, neither is it infused with the sort of attention-getting tactics that typically attend comebacks. Despite the long wait, the 34-year-old’s fourth was seemingly recorded in a burst. It is an emotional expulsion sung at times through gritted teeth or a raspy throat. It is easily Apple’s most raw and unadorned record, which is not to say it lacks pop smarts or polish.

Quirky percussion and pitter-patter rhythms heighten the largely piano-driven “Daredevil,” “Anything We Want” and “Periphery,” three highlights that spin off from the disc’s intimate, chamber-jazz center, though pop, per se, does not seem to be the goal.

With its expressive chords, free-for-all vocal cadences and scattered sonic surprises, this is the sort of record someone makes for themselves, free from the constraints of fashion and commercial expectations, much as her loyal major label may wish otherwise. Ironically, it takes strength and confidence to sound this vulnerable, with Apple’s personal troubles and victories our vicarious pleasures.

Fiona Apple plays Chicago Theatre Tuesday 10.