Posted Monday, October 17th, 2005
The Tin Man is Back in Action
Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine was released last week thanks to grass roots pressure from fans. It’s been six years since When the Pawn…, her second album, came out. How can that be? I suppose the people of the “Free Fiona” campaign feel as I do — though I’ve gotten married, had a child, discovered a career, and started business school since her last album — my life has been on hold until this release. I felt like the Tin Man must have: waiting in the woods for a girl from Kansas to discover his oil can and lubricate his joints.
I mean, my husband and I put holes in When the Pawn…It’s difficult for me to listen to it now. I no longer actually hear it when it plays, I know it that well. Like the “Free Fiona” activists, I was only hungry for more after I downloaded the single, “Extraordinary Machine,” from the Internet last year. I was frenzied when I heard that “Free Fiona” was sending apples directly to Sony to convince them to let Fiona’s album loose.
On October 4, NPR reviewed the new album. My husband rushed home the evening of the 3rd to announce that it would be on, and better yet, the following day would mark Extraordinary Machine’s release. Despite a looming accounting midterm, potty training trials at day care, and various “personnel changes” at my husband’s office, we rushed out to buy it on the 4th, if only to stick our tongues out at Sony. Remarkably, “Free Fiona’s” founder, Dave Muscato, who was interviewed by NPR's Elizabeth Blair, was inarticulate in his explanation of what is so special about her music. He said, “Her music is personal, but people can understand it in a way that really connects with them and it’s brooding, but she has a light in her that’s very interesting to listen to.” This struck me as hackneyed and vague.
Of course, my husband says that what I’m about to say is equally cliché. If I had to describe her albums, I’d say each is a journey. What I mean is, it’s a journey to understand them. On your first listen, you’ll be non-plussed. On your second, you’ll realize that there are some cool vocal maneuvers and catchy songs. The third time is when you’ll shudder, and it will dawn on you that you are listening to an amazing album. The fourth listen — and make sure this one is in the car on an extended trip (baby sleeping) when you can concentrate on her lyrics and the audio effects — you will know she is a genius.
It’s strange that it takes this many listens to realize what an exceptional artist she is. If you ever have the occasion to see her live, this fact is patently obvious from the first bar of her first song. It’s a little like what I imagine going to see Mozart must have been like. She’s slight, young, and all jacked up. Her voice is as rich as dulce de leche, and seeing her sing and bang on the piano gives you goose bumps. When she speaks between songs, you wish she wouldn’t. She’s insecure, unstable, immature — possibly on drugs.
And yet, I still long to be her best friend. To show her she is loved. She is absolutely loveable. She says herself, “My pet peeve in life is, and always has been, people close to me worrying about me a little bit too much when they think that I maybe I need a little bit more help than I actually do. I always turn things that are bad into something good, so, you know, leave me alone.”
My husband and many others call her petulant. Is there anything more affirming in this day and age than to hear someone who is sullen about the state of affairs? At 29, I’ve had to kiss a lot of ass. It’s terrific to be reminded of a time when I’d never have stood for it. She gives me faith that life can be lived on my terms.
A word about the album cover: the mysterious chlorophyll photographs are Fiona’s own. I suppose the natural world is the extraordinary machine, and indeed, she is. How terrific that she insisted her own art be featured on the album. Can’t you just see the whiny Sony art director trying to convince her not to, and her insistent fractiousness overcoming their sterile proven-to-sell strategy? But the back cover is where it is at — an elegant photo of Fiona wearing an iridescent white dress, gold broach, black velvet sash, long layers in her hair sitting in a wicker chair on a lawn strewn with oranges. Folks, she’s the apple!
More about being her best friend and then I will get to the songs. She dated Paul Thomas Anderson — arguably the most promising filmmaker of our time. (He wrote and directed Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love…) So for a while I fantasized about being best friends and hanging out with them together. I had a sneaking suspicion that they must have broken up, because there is nary a mention of him in the liner notes and more songs about heartbreak. Sure enough this was confirmed by a quick trip to IMDB.
She said on NPR that she’s grown up. That’s good. It’s nice to mellow with age. I hope she’s still insecure enough to find this article while Googling herself so that we can be best friends (PTA notwithstanding). I want her to stay forever young and continue to give me a glimpse back into the world of flirtation, manipulation, and romantic pain. This isn’t something a smug-married gets to listen to every day.
Jon Brion produced only two of the songs on the album: “Extraordinary Machine” and “Waltz (Better than Fine).” These are indeed a couple of her strongest songs. Brion is the gifted producer of When the Pawn… after all. She said, “It just turned into more of a Jon Brion record, and a Jon Brion record is a great thing.” She’s right of course. You can hear more Fiona on this album. But you do almost wish she’d agree to be Brion’s muse for another album. Their collaboration is too strong. They use many of Fiona’s vocal talents (her high register vibrato in “Extraordinary Machine” comes to mind) and syncopated rhythm to create jazz songs that resemble show tunes.
A few of the songs on the album, like “Get Him Back” and “O’Sailor,” have a similar sound to her début effort, Tidal. They have familiar arrangements and could even be outtakes, but “O’Sailor” is decidedly more sophisticated, with a hint of back-up vocals at the end of the song.
My favorite songs are the ones that are particularly captious and introspective. Songs like “Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song),” “Oh Well,” “Please, Please, Please,” and “Not about Love”. Fabulous lyrics coupled with gorgeous singing include: “Why did I kiss him so hard late last Friday night?” (why did you, tell me more…) “What wasted unconditional love!” (PTA you are a fool for parting ways with Fiona and knocking up your new girlfriend.) “This is not about love, because I am not in love.” (me neither, damnit!)
If she’s more mature now, she’s also learned a great deal about her own musicality, and her songs reflect that. There’s plenty of innovation on the album, and this may be why the album works at all. It is cohesive and beautiful. Thank you, Fiona. I can get back to my life for a while.
Comments [post a comment]
Posted by Amy Wilkinson on Monday, October 17th, 2005 at 5:37 PM
I really like this review/essay. Nate & I don't have the CD yet but will, on account of your piece, soon.
Hope you guys are well,
Posted by jocelyn johnson on Tuesday, October 18th, 2005 at 6:20 PM
What I like about this review is that I don't like (or more acurately 'don't know') fiona apple. For me, she has just been a waifish, pretty girl in a gown on a video from years ago. But you know her. Your interest, your enthusiam marks this peice and makes me want to know her too. Even be friends, maybe.
Posted by Nicholas Taylor on Tuesday, October 18th, 2005 at 8:23 PM
You don't want to be friends with her, Jocelyn. We must resist the temptation to befriend celebrities, no matter how many times they call us for advice, ask us out, etc.