No matter what marvellous things the internet has given us over the last few years, it has to be said that it’s robbed the music industry of its mystique a bit. Remember when Prince was rumoured to have recorded an album called The Black Album? It passed into legend and the hardcore Prince fan had to spend hours trekking round record fairs trying to track it down. Nowadays, the web-savvy amongst us would be able to find it within five minutes.
As was the case with Fiona Apple’s third album, Extraordinary Machine. Six long years in the making, the story behind it is almost as emotionally torturous and angst-ridden as the typical Apple song. Originally recorded with long-time producer Jon Brion, the tapes were handed to Sony in May 2003. Opinion differs as to what happens next – some say Sony refused to release the album in its finished state, others say that it was Apple herself that was unhappy with it.
Whatever the truth of the situation, the entire album was re-recorded with Mike Elizondo, a Dr Dre collaborator, and this is the version that’s now officially released. During the re-recording, some of the original Jon Brion tracks were leaked onto the internet, which only left Apple’s famously loyal fans desperate to hear more.
It would be a shame if this saga were to detract from the album in question, as Extraordinary Machine is a fine record, no matter who’s sat behind the production desk. The presence of Elizondo doesn’t signal a move into hip-hop – rather this is Apple as her fans know and love her, belting out angst-ridden yet defiant songs from her piano and showcasing her articulate, if sometimes awkward, lyrical gifts.
Brion’s work does survive here, in the form of the two songs that bookend the album. The title track recalls his work on the Punch Drunk Love soundtrack, full of strange sounding instruments eccentrically arranged. It’s an attention grabbing opener, but at the same time you’re glad the album was re-recorded – 12 tracks like this could easily become wearying.
The rest of the album is more typically Apple, although Elizondo does add some nice flourishes such as the dance beats on Tymps which keep things nice and fresh. As usual with Apple, she works best with the epic ballad – O Sailor is absolutely stunning, featuring some wonderful piano work, a brooding atmosphere and some classic Apple lyrics which see her baring her soul: “Everything good I deem too good to be true / Everything else is just a bore”
Parting Gift is similarly gorgeous, with Apple on sardonic form (“I opened my eyes while you were kissing me once more than once / And you looked as sincere as a dog / When it’s the food on your lips, with which it’s in love”), while Window has a beguiling dance beat to it while Apple hollers “I had to break the window…better I break the window than him or her or me”.
It’s these lyrics that are the focal point of Extraordinary Machine – written during the break up of her relationship with film director Paul Thomas Anderson, they’re as honest and bleak as we’ve come to expect from Apple. Get Him Back berates a lover for failing to disappoint her, while the beautifully languid Red Red Red just drips in sadness and melancholy – Apple’s voice being at its strongest here.
She’s also a damn fine pianist, as the Ben Folds-like solo on Not About Love proves. Yet it’s as a songwriter she’s at her best, and some of these songs are Apple at her best. It was a tough call to follow an album as immense as When The Pawn, but against all the odds Apple’s pulled it off. Whatever the truth behind the album’s delay, this is one record that’s well worth the wait.