Still awaiting official release, Fiona Apple’s ‘Machine’ is extraordinary

Jason LeRoy

For those of us presently attending college, the name Fiona Apple should still ring a bell or two. She exploded onto the scene in 1997 with her debut album, Tidal, which boasted such singles as “Shadowboxer” and “Criminal” (both of which are still in heavy rotation at local bars and during Krazy Karaoke in the Rathskeller).

Apple was still a teenager when Tidal was released, and her precocious child-prodigy charisma riveted the public’s eye. Who among us can forget when she made the legendary “This world is bullshit” speech upon winning an award at the MTV Video Music Awards, prompting host Chris Rock to exclaim, “Sounds more like Fiona X to me!”

For much of the general public, the Fiona Apple story ends there; however, the story has recently begun to pick back up, with the controversy over her unreleased third album, Extraordinary Machine.

By most accounts, Apple finished recording the album in 2003. It has yet to be officially released. Epic has announced a series of release dates over the years, only to cancel them and postpone the album’s release “indefinitely.” It is at this point in the story that details become sketchy.

The circumstances surrounding the Extraordinary Machine controversy are cloudy for a number of reasons. For one, Apple seems to have dropped off the face of the earth and has made no statements about the album. She did some press when various release dates were thought to be sure things, but then she’d vanish.

On their end of the deal, Epic has been absolutely no help. They have handled the entire Fiona fiasco as though they were George W. Bush being questioned about his security secrets, refusing to be interviewed on the subject and issuing extremely vague diplomatic-nonsense statements every few months or so that say things like, “We support Ms. Apple and look forward to the release of her album.”

So what gives? Why won’t Epic release the completed album of an established Platinum-selling artist with a solid fan base? To these questions, the answers vary. The most popular theory has been that the album just isn’t commercial enough, and that the label wasn’t hearing any singles. The label, naturally, has been silent on these allegations.

But after the album in its entirety was leaked to a Seattle DJ and then onto the Internet, the choice about whether Extraordinary Machine is worthwhile is now left with those where it should have been to begin with: the fans.

So what is this reporter’s verdict on Extraordinary Machine? The album certainly continues to veer in the direction hinted at on Apple’s criminally underrated, utterly brilliant sophomore album, When the Pawn. The earnest, husky ballads of Tidal continue to be overruled in favor of whimsical yet somber meditations on failed love and self-loathing.

She also retains her inimitable ability to write internal rhymes better than anyone else outside the realm of rap. For instance, on the title track she sings, “I seem to you to seek a new disaster every day / You deem me due to clean my view and be at peace and lay / I mean to prove I mean to move in my own way / And say I’ve been getting along for long before you came into the play.”

Yes, this is certainly the least commercial and most challenging album Apple has released so far. But only in a culture that prizes stupidity in music would a singer be punished for displaying intelligence. In some senses, Apple is like a musical equivalent of Virginia Woolf, rambling and raving at the speed of light while the mechanical but melodic musical backing creates a sonic expression of the life of the mind.

The album is discordant where the listener expects predictability.

While Extraordinary Machine may lack instantly appealing singles, since when did that determine whether a CD deserved to be released? The crucial conflict here has to do with false expectations. Epic is in dire need of a reality check about what type of artist they have on its hands. They need to stop pressuring Apple to become Vanessa Carlton, and just let her be the Rufus Wainwright or Sam Phillips that she is clearly intended to be.

Contact pop arts reporter Jason C. LeRoy at [email protected].