Fiona Apple paints with pain the way other artists might use oils or ink.
Scrambling her well-used brush through a muddied swirl of angst, romance, psychosis and regret, the 34-year-old singer-songwriter slams listeners' faces into her agonizing canvases with surprising grace.
That she renders her unrest so skillfully is no surprise -- Apple introduced herself as a very self-aware "bad, bad girl" 15 years ago -- just as it is also not shocking that Apple has taken a full seven years to follow up her vibrant 2005 LP, Extraordinary Machine (itself a victim of the record industry's then-nascent implosion).
Opening up a largely private life for public consumption is a risky endeavor, particularly in an age of snap judgments and ceaseless snark.
Her enduring fearlessness, which gives her fourth studio effort, The Idler Wheel is wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords will serve you more than Ropes will ever do, its scarred soul, is precisely what allows Apple to get away with making her fans wait so long.
The passage of time has only intensified Apple's approach. And, upon first listen, it becomes apparent just how acutely her prolonged absence has affected smart, sensitive pop music.
Dispensing with the jaunty, kaleidoscopic soundscapes (courtesy producer Jon Brion) found on Machine, The Idler Wheel is a stark, stripped-down affair, produced by Apple with touring drummer Charley Drayton. The pair's collaboration brings out the jazz aficionado in Apple; more than once, these raw dispatches feel like little more than demos.
"Every single night's a fight with my brain," Apple moans in the anxious opener, Every Single Night. The track captures The Idler Wheel in miniature: a woman at war with what she wants, and the tantalizing promise of a settled life with a loved one thwarted by a desire to "just want to be everything" -- unable to be happy with one's self ensures that happiness with another may never come.
So it goes through The Idler Wheel: Thrilling, closely miked compositions (you can hear the piano pedals being stepped upon during Daredevil; the wounded waltz Jonathan, reportedly about her ex-boyfriend, author Jonathan Ames, tips along on dropped drumsticks and casually struck cymbals) convey equally close-to-the-bone emotions. Apple rarely shies away from letting her voice go ragged for emphasis, although there are moments of piercing beauty, too.
Yet even as Apple refuses to let herself off the artistic hook, these 10 songs generate a tremendous empathy for one of pop music's most gifted practitioners. The drought between Fiona Apple albums is over at last, and one can only hope that The Idler Wheel inspires the wounded romantic to return to her palette of pain sooner rather than later.
Preston Jones is the Star-Telegram pop music critic, 817-390-7713