It has been six long years since Fiona Apple’s last album, “When the Pawn…”
In her absence, fans discovered that Apple was working on her latest release with producer and usual collaborator, Jon Brion.
Soon, two songs were leaked. Eventually, all the tracks were available to any fan with a healthy knowledge of how to navigate the Internet.
The rumor: Sony, claiming its lack of commercial viability, had shelved the disc of the groundbreaking artist, reportedly completed in 2003. In the frenzy, a movement began. Freefiona.com was founded, and followers staged protests in an attempt to make Apple’s album, “Extraordinary Machine,” available to the world.
Two years later, fans learned that “Extraordinary Machine” was to be released. But, a new producer, Mike Elizondo, had taken over the project, and the album that would be coming to stores would contain rerecorded versions with the exception of only two.
It was feared that the CD had now become the product of the well-oiled industry machine.
Conspiracy theories about the CD have been discussed, but it can’t be denied – this disc is still extraordinary in it own right, and Apple does not disappoint.
Apple is easily one of the most brilliant and effective lyricists of the present time. She speaks with truth and self-awareness. Such is the case with “Better Version of Me,” where in her quest for an improved self, she notes, “I am likely to miss the main event if I stop to cry and complain again.”
When Apple brings her focus to relationship dynamics, she can dissect her own feelings flawlessly. In “Get Him Back,” a tune that could too quickly be labeled as a run-of-the-mill song about the one who “did you wrong,” she shows her mistake in dismissing other prospects and thereby the complexity of human behavior: “I think he let me down when he didn’t disappoint me.”
What makes this album so striking is the nearly seamless blending of musical styles, which only further prove Apple’s versatility. Much of the music features jazzy undertones achieved through blasting horns and swinging beats, sometimes juxtaposed with electric guitars.
Apple’s tunes can sound simultaneously old-fashioned and modern, as on the Brion-produced tracks, “Extraordinary Machine” and “Waltz.” The latter explicitly harks back to a more innocent, simpler and less frenetic era when one could “go out and sit on the lawn / and do nothing.”
In “Window,” Apple both lyrically and musically crashes through the barrier that stifles her. As she exclaims, “I had to break the window / it just had to be,” the drums and piano resonate to mimic the shattering of the glass.
Despite its title, “Please Please Please” does not allude to a sentiment of desperation. Instead, the song acts as an unforgiving statement against the blandness and suppressed creativity of today’s music scene. Apple mocks the limited capacity for truly inventive material: “Give us something familiar / something similar / to what we know already / that will keep us steady / steady / steady going nowhere.” Whether it was intended as an anthem condemning Sony, as was often claimed, the song’s thought-provoking theme makes it incredibly intriguing.
Apple is particularly strong on her ballads, and proves she can stand on her raw talent alone. “Parting Gift” – where she is only accompanied by her piano – sounds gorgeous in its simplicity.
For those who had heard the Brion cut of the LP, some of his orchestrations are missed; the string arrangements in “Not About Love” and “Red Red Red” are the most obvious examples. However, the Elizondo versions are enjoyable here too, and produce a different tone.
Do we know what to believe after all the hype and confusion? Say what you will – this machine fails to lose any power with whatever producer is behind it.