After a 2003 Internet leak exposed an unfinished copy of her third album, Fiona Apple reemerged from six years of self-imposed exile as an unforgettable songwriter. Her story has been told many times in entertainment and music publications and often over-interpreted from the scant amount of publicly available information. But in its most factually accurate sense, here it goes: Following a long hiatus from the biz, Apple completed a version of Extraordinary Machine. Produced by Hollywood orchestral wizard and veteran Apple music label producer Jon Brion, the album was submitted to Sony in 2003. Outsiders can only speculate as to why, after completion, its release was indefinitely put on hold. Initially, the press was led to believe that Apple’s label, Epic, owned by Sony, was dissatisfied with the finished product. Later, Spin magazine revealed that Apple herself may have decided to shelve the project after it didn’t match up with her original “vision.” Eventually fans began to expect that her third album would forever gather dust at Sony headquarters.
Whatever the real history behind Extraordinary Machine, we now know that the album was rerecorded in its entirety following the extraordinary buzz it received after it leaked. Featuring – gasp – producer Mike Elizondo (50 Cent, Eminem), the official release bears some resemblance to the original Brion sessions but, most importantly, is much better. While the 2003 leak sounded unbalanced between pronounced string arrangements and Apple’s own loud presence, its new form is well-mixed and composed from front to back.
The album opens with the title track, one of only two that remain note for note from the Brion sessions – an offbeat song with jazzy vocals, plucked strings and the most addictive chorus on the entire disc. Apple’s personality sounds sweet and pensive on the opener, leaving the possibility that the years of dark angst and bitterness are behind her. Don’t be fooled though, as the second track, “Get Him Back,” romps into violent revenge (“Wait ’til I get him back / He won’t have a back to scratch.”)
As much as her self-righteous anger sometimes reads on paper like the diary of a heartbroken teenager, Apple may have grown out of her reclusiveness. “Parting Gift” is as close as she’ll ever let the listener into her personal sphere, and as tormented and bitter of a life she’s had (and she’ll never let you forget it), there’s something intriguing and captivating about her words. She seems to have recognized her faults in the public arena (“I am likely to miss the main event / If I stop to cry and complain again”), and show that she’s cast off her media image as the poster child for fucked-up youth (“So I will keep a deliberate pace / Let the damn breeze dry my face”).
Extraordinary Machine excels primarily in its musical diversity. Hints of Joni Mitchell glow in Apple’s astonishing vocal range, and chunks of John Lennon’s piano are pretty evident as well – compare the last piano chord on Extraordinary Machine to that on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club. And while her influences aren’t invisible, Apple shows talent in all genres ranging from hip-hop scats to operatic falsettos. Underneath all the bassoons and clarinets that personalize this album is a strong, unique musical identity – the stomping midrange piano and her gorgeous voice, complex key and time changes, howls and whispers and a taste for the waltz.
Some may find Fiona Apple too in-your-face about her feelings. Men accustomed to lamenting their own broken love may find her self-righteousness unattractive. Male or female, it gets tiring to hear any artist ceaselessly wax bitterness, and this one’s no exception. With that said, Fiona Apple is no throwaway musician. Her music is complex, and her voice is deep with passion and soul. Resurrected from a dark cave of infamy, Apple strikes a perfect chord with this long-awaited album. Let’s just hope audiences don’t have to wait another six years for the next one.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.