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.
The full album title is as visceral as the lyrical content: “The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will
Ever Do.” Through 10 uneasy songs mostly set to dirge-like piano melodies and inscrutable percussion, Apple exorcises the demons that constantly keep her on edge. “Every single night’s a fight with my brain,” she says on the opening “Every Single Night,” before concluding, “I just want to feel everything.”
Apple has been here before, but it makes her new album no less arresting. Where other songwriters might mask such a dark night of the soul, Apple stares it dead in the eye. On “Daredevil,” when she sings, “I don’t feel anything until I smash it up,” it sounds more like a boast than a lament. (Out Tuesday)
ESSENTIAL “Every Single Night”
Fiona Apple performs at Citi Wang Theatre on June 30.