Few albums will be released this year with a more tortured back story than Fiona Apple's Extraordinary Machine. The singer-pianist's third album was finished in May 2003 with producer Jon Brion but rejected by Apple's Sony Music bosses (according to Brion) because it lacked potential hit singles. Fans petitioned for its release, and earlier this year eleven songs from the Brion sessions were leaked online. At the same time, Apple was reworking nine of those same songs with producers Brian Kehew and Mike Elizondo — the latter of whom is the multi-instrumentalist who co-wrote hip-hop anthems such as 50 Cent's "In Da Club," Eminem's "The Real Slim Shady" and Mary J. Blige's "Family Affair." (Ironically enough, rock guy Brion went on to produce a large chunk of Kanye West's Late Registration, playing a role similar to Elizondo's on Dr. Dre's records.) Brion has distanced himself from the leaked Extraordinary Machine tracks, claiming that several were altered from what he and Apple recorded.
So what's the end result of all this? One doozy of a breakup album. Apple wrote much of Extraordinary Machine in the wake of her split from Paul Thomas Anderson, writer and director of Boogie Nights and Magnolia. The combination of this experience and just plain maturity — Apple released 1996's Tidal and 1999's When the Pawn . . . when she was eighteen and twenty-two, respectively — have helped to make Machine Apple's strongest and most detailed batch of songs yet.
The finished album opens and closes with two untouched cuts from the Brion sessions: the quirky title track and the equally ornate "Waltz (Better Than Fine)"; both feature the string-laden orchestrations, arcane instrumentation and unconventional rhythms the producer has brought to his work with Rufus Wainwright and Badly Drawn Boy. Between these songs are newly recorded, radically reworked versions of other Brion tracks plus one brand-new tune, "Parting Gift." Elizondo and Kehew set Apple's smoky voice and expressive piano in simple settings that support her wry wordplay just as a hip-hop track leaves space for an MC. "Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song)" — known on the Web as "Used to Love Him" — features a snappy looped beat that wouldn't be out of place in an Eminem tune. Elizondo and Kehew give the tracks energy with woodwinds, brass, guitars and swinging live drums courtesy of heavy hitters Abe Laboriel Jr. and ?uestlove of the Roots. Hard-core fans will recognize much of "O' Sailor" — a repetitive, almost "Hey Jude"-like highlight — from the earlier Brion version, until the final stanza, where Elizondo and Kehew have Apple take a sad song and make it better; she shifts to a higher register and brings the bittersweet tune home in harmony.
Lyrically, Apple has never been as clever, as angered or as anguished. On the menacing "Red Red Red," she compares trying to get to the hidden heart of a secretive lover with mining for diamonds: "I think if I didn't have to kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill myself doing it/Maybe I wouldn't think so much of you." On the rollicking "Window," she destroys a "filthy pane" to achieve emotional clarity on a lover's lack of fidelity: "Better that I break the window/Than him or her or me" and concludes with an emphatic "Especially me!" (another new touch). Throughout, Apple's torch and torch-you songs now balance her precocious depth with a hard-won directness. Against all odds, Extraordinary Machine lives up to its title as a testimony to its creator's resilience and flexibility. Apple hasn't compromised, as some of her fans have feared; instead she's turned her label's interference into inspiration.