When Fiona Apple started sharing songs from her new album, as early as March at the South by Southwest music festival, she assumed a boxer’s stance onstage. The muscles around her neck tightened. Veins popped. Her eyes nervously darted to the floor. She was tense, the audience looked even more so, and yet we were all in it together. We had signed up for this — another bad trip through Apple’s cracked psyche.
It’s now clear that it would be impossible to perform Apple’s new album without taut muscles and bulging veins. “The Idler Wheel. . .” is pop music as self-flagellation. Even her voice is a form of punishment — lacerating a lyric, cooing the next one, and gripping you at turns. Sometimes you don’t want to hear what Apple will say next, but you also can’t tune it out.