By Nathan Ma, Staff Writer

Upon hearing that Apple, after seven years of relative anonymity (no albums recorded and little touring), was slated to release her fourth full-length album “The Idler Wheel…”, I was immediately intrigued with her return for many reasons. How would the songstress compare to the seemingly endless array of female popstars that have emerged since her hiatus? Where would Apple be emotionally, well noted for her temperamental persona and onstage anxiety? Would anyone still be listening? For those who waited, it was well worth it. “The Idler Wheel…” is the finest pop album released this year, oozing with confidence and vitality.

Right from the very first play, it’s obvious the spotlight belongs to Apple. The understated production, typically consisting of light percussion and key flourishes, keeps the stage clean, leaving plenty of room for Apple to dance, cartwheel, and captivate with her vocal acrobatics.

Lyrics have always been a strong-suit for Apple, but the exponential progression since 2005’s “Extraordinary Machine” is almost unsettling. On “Anything We Want,” Apple croons of details so intimate, yet wholly relatable that anyone who’s partaken in a romantic relationship can only smile and nod peevishly to her lyrical sentiment. Even better is Apple’s tight-rope act on “Left Alone,” balancing between syncopated verses and shrill falsetto over rollicking piano while still dropping one liners like “I was still a dewey petal rather than a moribund slut.” “Regret” is the emotional crest of the album, a brooding track highlighted by the most lacerating hook you’re likely to ever hear. It would be unfair to spoil it, so instead I’ll simply recommend reserving a space at the edge of your seat when the chorus drops. Seriously though: this chick is intense.

“There’s nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key,” concedes Apple on “Werewolf,” and the resignation and acceptance of her delivery is oddly life-affirming. “The Idler Wheel…” is full of moments that shock and sadden, but Apple refuses to wallow in self-pity. The pace is quick, and she moves with grace through at times painful subject matter. A squeaky, easy listening summer album? No, this ain’t. Mandatory listening? Yes. Do it now.