Her songs are still extremely autobiographical, which is perhaps their charm. Following in the footsteps of other singer-songwriters, especially women who emerged in the early ’90s and expressed their emotions in particularly vulnerable ways, Apple’s openness has always had an empowering appeal. Her songs seem to suggest that feeling a variety of emotions—sadness, glee, despair, insanity—is not only normal, but, like those self-reflective musicians before her, she also gives permission to her listeners to feel the same way.
Even for Apple, her older songs are relics of another time, and she now makes them applicable to her life in the present. “They all kind of become poems after a while,” she says. “You can take your own meaning out of them. It’s been a very long time [since my first albums], and I can apply those songs to other situations that are more current in my life.” She admits she has changed greatly since she started writing songs in her late teenage years, especially when it comes to how she portrays herself. “I don’t feel comfortable singing the songs that I wrote. I used to blame other people and not take responsibility. I thought I was a total victim trying to look strong.”
And she is much harder on herself in the songs on The Idler Wheel than she ever was before. Sure, she admitted to being “careless with a delicate man” in “Criminal,” arguably her most famous song, and in When the Pawn’s “Mistake” she sang, “Do I wanna do right, of course but / Do I really wanna feel I’m forced to / Answer you, hell no.” On The Idler Wheel, Apple examines her own solitude and neuroses as well as their effect on her relationships with others. “I can love the same man, in the same bed, in the same city,” she sings on “Left Alone,” “But not in the same room, it’s a pity.” On “Jonathan,” a somber love song layered with robotic, mechanical sounds that’s presumably about her ex-boyfriend, author and Bored to Death creator Jonathan Ames, she urges, “Don’t make me explain / Just tolerate my little fist / Tugging at your forest-chest / I don’t want to talk about anything.”