As long as she is miserable in love, as long as her emotions remain a magnificently tangled web, Fiona Apple will continue to satisfy her fans. The singer-songwriter's long-awaited new album, in stores today, is called Extraordinary Machine. It's a more realized extension of the passionate, arty pop approach heard on Apple's last record, 1999's When the Pawn ..., whose actual title is 90 words long. But this time around, the sound, though brilliantly layered, is more streamlined and accessible.
Extraordinary Machine, the native New Yorker's third CD, is one of the finest pop albums you will hear this year. With each listen, the 50-minute, 12-song set reveals more of itself as the singer delivers her emotionally naked, at times amusingly twisted songs with a veneer of cool toughness. In the six years away from the spotlight, Apple has blossomed into a more assured vocalist and a daring (though occasionally still clumsy) lyricist. Amazingly, Extraordinary Machine almost didn't see the light of CD shops.
It was recorded twice. On the first version, Apple collaborated with producer Jon Brion, who had overseen When the Pawn ... . The result was an obtuse, insular record with occasional flashes of brilliance. But ultimately, Brion and Apple tried too hard to be arty and deep with her meandering melodies and his elaborate, baroque orchestrations. Early this year, there were rumors that Sony, the artist's label, had rejected the first version because it was noncommercial. But in recent interviews, Apple has insisted that she was the cause for the delay. Unsatisfied with Brion's job, she just walked away from the record and didn't know when or if she'd ever return to it.
Last winter, the densely orchestrated version of Extraordinary Machine was anonymously leaked to the Internet, creating quite a buzz among staunch Apple fans. A Web site called FreeFiona.com was created by some of those fans to petition Sony to release the album. Dozens of foam apples were sent to the label's New York offices. The result drew considerable media attention for the reclusive artist, who was touched by the fans' protests and decided to revisit the project with a new producer. This time, she hired Mike Elizondo, best known for his work with Eminem and 50 Cent.
Two songs from the Brion sessions - the cutesy, chamber-pop-styled title track and the whimsical "Waltz (Better Than Fine)" - bookend the second version, which Sony has released. The 10 Elizondo tracks are marked improvements, not nearly as laborious as Brion's original takes. And Apple performances are consistently strong. The brighter, beat-heavy productions glimmer with interesting idiosyncrasies and odd melodies. But Elizondo's uncluttered arrangements leave ample room for Apple's songs to take shape. She sounds more comfortable and believable without the consciously dramatic instrumental embellishments.
Also gone are the vocal affectations that occasionally marred Tidal, Apple's uneven, triple-platinum debut. She sings the songs straight and clear-eyed. With its pumping piano line and funky backbeat courtesy of Roots drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, the sharp "Get Him Back" sounds like a sure radio hit.
Even when she's beating herself up over a broken relationship as on "Please Please Please" and "Oh Well," the artist sounds firmly in control. Everything can crumble around her - and sometimes she may be responsible for the destruction. But as Apple lets us know in the chorus of the title track, she will be fine in the end: "Be kind to me," she sings, "or treat me mean/I'll make the most of it/I'm an extraordinary machine."