Fiona Apple was on comedian Marc Maron's podcast last week. They talked about
colonics, which sounds awkward, but is in fact an easier, less-personal
conversation than digging directly into Apple's new record, "The Idler Wheel
Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More
Than Ropes Will Ever Do."
Or even just making small talk about the record's title.
"You're one of those people I don't know, but I tend to worry about," Maron said.
"Really?" Apple said. "Why do people worry about me?"
Because for all we talk about how much we share with one another these days, it remains unsettling when we encounter someone who really does seem to be sharing everything. Reality television isn't real, and we're not revealing ourselves on Facebook. We're self-editing.
Everyone wants to be perceived as coolly confident, like Jack White. Hardly anyone is brave enough to open up as much as Fiona Apple.
White and Apple -- two of the most enigmatic, magnetic and captivating figures in pop music today -- have two of the year's best records. Both are headed to Portland, Apple for the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on Thursday, White for the Rose Garden's Theater of the Clouds on Aug. 15.
But where White, 37, has spent years building walls of mirrors that allow him to move with mischievous impunity, Apple, 34, has knocked down the house she's been holed up in, torched the furniture and is standing naked in the elements. White projects out; Apple collapses in.
Released in June -- seven years after her last record, "Extraordinary Machine" -- the songs on "The Idler Wheel ..." are damaged, finely focused and in the key of despair. They make you want to hug her and say, "Chin up, champ!"
Producer Charley Drayton's percussion work rattles these songs like, well, an idler wheel -- the gear dropped between Apple's vocals and bursts of moody piano work. "Every Single Night" opens the record with lullaby sounds and descends into middle of the night frustrations born from insomnia. "I just want to feel everything," she sings. And she does. And she tells us about it in cutting, poetic detail, the arrows almost always aimed back at herself.
"I've made my peace; I'm dead; I'm done. I watch you live to have my fun," she sings on "Valentine." When she says she "made it to a dinner date," you sense it was an accomplishment just getting out of the house.
Apple told Billboard one of the reasons it took seven years to put this record out was because she's someone who "needs to keep my house clean." Considering her recent tendency to open up about her obsessive-compulsive disorder, it's easy to imagine her scrubbing a single spot on the counter for months.
Now, if White were to say something like that, we'd laugh and say, "That's Jack being Jack." He set us up from the start. The White Stripes were Meg and Jack White, brother and sister. But they weren't. They were once married. This was written. Jack never blinked, stuck to his story. Truth is what he says it is.
Since the White Stripes' 1999 debut, he's released five other records with that band, two Raconteurs records, two Dead Weather records and, in April, his first solo record, "Blunderbuss."
His Third Man Records complex in Nashville was described in a New York Times Sunday Magazine story as "a cross between Warhol's Factory and the Batcave." There, he's done work with Tom Jones, Beck, the Insane Clown Posse, Loretta Lynn and other equally incongruous characters.
Third Man employees all wear yellow and black. White kept a strict red and black color scheme for the White Stripes. He's currently in his blue period. Even while speeding in a neon green classic car in the Hype Williams-directed video for "Freedom at 21" that was released last week, White is cast in blue.
On tour, he's been travelling with two bands: one all men, the other all women. Only one plays each night.
He's developed a friendship with Bob Dylan, possibly the greatest huckster of the past half-century.
In the period between 2010's Dead Weather release, "Sea of Cowards," and "Blunderbuss," White went through a divorce, and announced the breakup of the White Stripes, the blame for which he laid on Meg in that Times story.
"Blunderbuss" is an acrimonious affair, then, populated by women who will leave a mark. Empathy levels are low throughout. And our narrators aren't shrinking from the fight.
"And who the hell's impressed by you," White spits on "Hypocritical Kiss." "I want names of the people we know that are falling for this."
Thematically it might find a distant cousin in Dylan's "Blood On the Tracks." Musically, it's related to White's past work. The White Stripes' dirty blues stomps, the Raconteurs' pop hooks, the dark edges of the Dead Weather are all there, the whole thing then wrapped in leather and handed a pair of dark sunglasses.
Most of the songs on "Blunderbuss" could be about either of White's busted relationships, neither, or both. We might think we know the answer (has to be both, right?), but we won't ever be able to make the charge stick. And while we'll trying, he'll do something like release a single via helium balloon, as he did earlier this year.
White has built a prolific career, draws a bright spotlight and has managed to do it in a way where we don't know all that much about him. And we probably don't know as much about Apple as we think. After all, a lot of these last seven years were spent privately, not performing and, it would seem from interviews, chasing creative whims.
White struts in the shadows; Apple stands wounded in the light. Or does she? No matter how broken the lyric, or deliberately ugly the delivery, Apple never sounds weak. She sounds determined. Maybe that's her game. No one's an open diary to the world at all times.
On Maron's podcast, he told her that he worries about her because she's creative, and that can cause turmoil.
"Well, yeah, it does," she said. "I go through hellish pain, but ... you shouldn't worry about it."
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