The biggest bummer of last week for me was listening to confessional singer-songwriter Fiona Apple’s new album, The Idler Wheel… etc. (The title is very long.) Her previous album, Extraordinary Machine, released seven years earlier, is simply one of my all-time favorites. Naturally, my hopes for the new one were high.
I confess that when I saw her wearing—I kid you not—a squid on her head in the new video, I started to worry. Then I saw her on Jimmy Fallon, where Apple—who admitted in the past to struggling with an eating disorder—looked gaunt, skinnier at 34 than she was at 27. Then I read recent interviews, which included descriptions of bizarre personal behavior and her saying that she had obsessive-compulsive disorder. Then I saw the album cover, which includes what I imagine is a really ugly self-portrait. Is this how feels about herself?
Of course, all this could be a carefully crafted public image—although to what end is anyone’s guess. Maybe it has no bearing on the “real” Fiona Apple, to which fans like me have no access. I totally get all that. And I tried to put all of it out of my mind when I listened to the new album.
When I did listen to it, however, it didn’t alleviate my fears about her mental health. As I wrote in my Amazon review of the album,
The new album is relentlessly bleak to the point of being nihilistic. There’s not a funny or light moment on the whole record, as far as I can hear. I keep reading from the critics that she’s “finally grown up” on this album—as if there’s something more realistic or honest about what she’s feeling now than before. I don’t see it. I’m a grown-up with several more years under my belt than her, and her experience of life is very different from mine or anyone else I know. Life can be incredibly painful, but it’s still good–not to mention filled with beauty, love, and friendship. And when life is bad, isn’t it the case that we often bear some (not all, but some) of the responsibility? It seems like a fully mature human being would have the wisdom to see this–and be able to laugh at herself a little bit.
At the end of the review, as an aside, I said, “It’s hard to enjoy a singer-songwriter whose health and well-being I can’t help but worry about!” And I do worry. As at least one commenter on my review pointed out, I should mind my own business, and what does it matter anyway? If it’s great art, it’s great art. Apple’s mental health has nothing to do with it.
As if he had to tell me! If only he knew how much I love the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, who has struggled publicly with mental health issues for four decades, reflected most conspicuously in the Smile project, which I love… Or Pink Floyd’s Piper at the Gates of Dawn, recorded in 1967, shortly before the band’s brilliant but troubled lead singer and songwriter, Syd Barrett, was fired from the band for his mental instability. (The band carried on without him and later wrote a song-suite called “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” about him.)
The point is, I can enjoy art made by crazy people. Whether or not Fiona Apple is crazy isn’t the primary reason that Idler Wheel is one of the ugliest, most unpleasant things I’ve ever heard. Still, there are real human beings underneath this music that we love. Basic human compassion should come into play at some point. I can only hope that Apple has people in her life—family and true friends—who can love and care for her. Not to be all pastor-ish, but I could even pray for that, couldn’t I?
As I indicated in my review, I can’t abide critics saying, as many have, that this album represents the work of someone who is finally grown-up, who has put childish things behind her, and now has real insight into the way the world works. What they’re saying, among other things, is that the kind of deep pessimism expressed by Apple on the album is more “realistic” than Pollyannas like me who go for old-fashioned things like faith, hope, and love. Spare me!
As a reminder of the Fiona Apple whose music I fell in love with, I’ll leave you with this song, “Red Red Red,” from her 2005 album, Extraordinary Machine. As you can see, she was hardly writing about kittens and unicorns back then, but, unlike on the new album, she was artfully crafting sustained metaphors like the following. Please note: sad does not equal bleak and depressing.
I don’t understand about
Diamonds and why men buy them
What’s so impressive about a diamond
Except the mining?
And it’s dangerous work
Trying to get to you too
And I think, if I didn’t have to
Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill myself doing it
Maybe I wouldn’t think so much of you