A World-Class Drama Queen

Photo: Autumn de Wilde/Courtesy of Epic Records

The world of pop music is not exactly lacking in poster children for smart, neurotic fuckups. If you’re feeling maudlin and introverted, then Norah Jones has a warm aural bath prepared for you. If you’re repressed and self-pitying, then Morrissey is eternally ready to feel your pain. Smart, neurotic fuckups with a steely inner will and unrelenting emotional honesty are harder to find, however—and that’s where Fiona Apple comes in.

It’s been so long since Apple’s sprawling, visionary second album, When the Pawn … , that it’s hard to believe she’s still only 28. After six years, she’s back with the excellent Extraordinary Machine—which comes complete with a juicy backstory; more on that later—and she’s still dissecting relationships with self-analytical bravado. Take the riveting dirge “O’ Sailor.” First, she’s conflicted about him. Then she blames herself for ruining it all. Finally she admits she “also saved myself / by never believing you, dear.” That’s just the first verse. Or “Get Him Back,” where she catalogues the men who’ve failed her, before allowing she “might have been a little fast to dismiss” the last one—“I think he let me down when he didn’t disappoint me.”

It’s trademark Apple: Confusion converted to catharsis, courtesy of a powerful alto and ringing, rolling piano chords—then, at the last moment, distanced with rueful wit. The singer/songwriter is the queen of therapized lyric writing, not content with an insight until she’s fessed up to her own complicity. She might obsess, but she never wallows: She’s always processing, always moving toward, as one song puts it, a “Better Version of Me.”

The songs on Extraordinary Machine were the first she’s written while single, she explains from the corner of a couch in her suite at the W Hotel. Compared with When the Pawn … , recorded during her relationship with the director Paul Thomas Anderson, they’re “more like conversations I’m having with myself rather than things that I’m screaming at somebody. I picture myself when I was writing the songs, and there’s a lot more of me by myself, not in a rage, but in a long period of solitude, of spending a lot of time thinking.”

The album does sound like the quieter, more reflective aftermath of When the Pawn … . There, she invented a brilliant, messy fusion of jazz, electronica, and music-hall. Now she’s distilled it into a kind of emotional cabaret noir, by turns brooding and bouncy, orchestrated to sardonic strings, melancholy horns, and quirky instrumental colors. It would be a shame if the album was overshadowed by the complicated story of its recording.

The Cliffs Notes version goes like this: Apple started working with her longtime producer, Jon Brion, in 2002; unsure of what she wanted, she left Brion to finish the record; Sony supposedly rejected the baroque result; Apple was also unsatisfied, but the label demanded she submit one rerecorded song at a time for approval (Sony denies this); Brion’s version was leaked on the Internet and praised by critics; a Website called Free Fiona inspired fans to picket Sony’s New York offices; finally, earlier this year, she redid most of the album with Mike Elizondo, known for his work with Dr Dre.

This kind of thing keeps happening to Apple. She doesn’t seek controversy, but somehow it always finds her—she’s like the ex-girlfriend your friend is still besotted with but you’re suspicious of because she’s such a drama magnet.

Her first hit, “Criminal,” was accompanied by a controversial video with overtones of child porn. When she won Best New Artist at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards, she declared, “This world is bullshit.” She gave her second album a 90-word poem-title, inviting ridicule, then marched offstage halfway through a 2000 show at Roseland because she was unhappy with the sound quality (she later issued an eight-page apology).

You might accuse Apple of being a publicity mastermind—some have—if her relationship with the spotlight wasn’t so genuinely conflicted. She theorizes that one reason for Extraordinary Machine’s delay was her unwillingness to return to public life; perhaps she was “kind of sabotaging myself because of that.” There’s a sense in which self-doubt is part of her performance—when she took the stage recently at the Virgin Megastore in Union Square, she talked constantly between songs about how nervous she was, told herself to shut up, pulled at her hair, and at one point half-screamed, “Why do I try?”

Apple’s fans are protective of her. On Internet message boards, they’re firmly into an Artist vs. The Man scenario. They already hate the rerecorded songs that have been released so far and they’re convinced that Apple will never speak out against the new version of the album for fear of reprisals from Sony.

This happens with female singers: We crowd around them, offering advice and admonishments. Britney Spears might as well be the nation’s teenage daughter gone wild, such is the clucking over her sexuality. In Apple’s case, the syndrome is compounded by her rape, when she was 12, by a stranger in her mother’s apartment building.

And yet she’s out there, hammering on the piano. There’s a fearlessness about her that’s inspiring. The title song of Extraordinary Machine is a letter to those who worry about her: “They start paying a lot of attention to me,” she shudders, “and they think they know what’s best for me. And it makes me nauseous. All I want to say is, ‘Don’t you know me, I make songs out of it, it’s okay!’ ”

Most artists demur when asked if their work is about their lives, but Apple doesn’t. She often starts songs with arcane words—folderol, stentorian, and Rubicon show up on Extraordinary Machine—before matching them with other verbal building blocks, and she treats her relationships in a similar manner. “I can access ways that I was feeling at a certain time,” she says, and “by the time I’m writing the second verse, I might be talking about a completely different person.”

In fact, she says, she might have used up all her relationships. The last song she wrote for the album was “Parting Gift,” which she calls “a song for all my ex-boyfriends, saying I love them, and thank you for all this stuff, but I think I’m finally kind of done writing about you all. All my relationships have evolved into these friendships, and it’s impossible to use them as material anymore.” Could Fiona Apple have found peace, or—God forbid—closure? Not likely.

Extraordinary Machine
Fiona Apple.

See also:
Fall Preview: Extraordinary Machine

A World-Class Drama Queen