Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson once told Kenyon College’s 1990 graduating class, “If you ever want to find out just how uninteresting you really are, get a job where the quality and frequency of your thoughts determine your livelihood. ” This, mind you, was a time when the quality of creative works still held a significantly greater value than their frequency of production. Fiona Apple, another icon from the tail end of that bygone era, just released her fourth album in sixteen years, making it pretty obvious where her allegiances lie with regards to the quality/frequency divide.
The opening bars of The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do outline and amplify Watterson’s half-joke in shorthand: Every single night is a fight with my brain. This is the basic struggle of anybody who has ever had an idea that they wanted to commit to page or tape or canvas. And it’s only amplified for those of us who have decided to pursue such banalities on a professional level. Creativity is its own wonderful, self-contained compulsion until its given a name and timetable. Then it shatters and echoes, giving birth to all sorts of new anxieties that consume all of your oxygen and make it difficult to fulfill that thing that once existed for the sole sake of fulfillment. (The tendency of these anxieties to spill over into and possibly poison the realm of interpersonal relationships is central to most of Fiona’s output, but that might be another mess for another blog. I don’t cry when I’m sad anymore.)
The beauty of Fiona Apple’s work is how transparently she wears this creative turmoil. (And all turmoil, really.) Internal process is her foil and her muse. Both on record and in the press, she’s completely candid about her violent self-awareness and self-doubt, “mirroring the neurons” of anybody who has ever seriously tried to make something and make it good. But in sharing these secrets with civilians this same transparency becomes a weakness. It’s always heartbreaking to watch her process misinterpreted as madness, as if walking up and down a hill for eight hours daily isn’t a perfectly reasonable compulsion for someone whose existence depends on their ability to turn abstract ideas into tangible products.
Stream: Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel… LP