Unblinded Singer-Songwriter Proves She Knows Words Aren’t Everything


Often viewed as soggy diary keepers, singer-songwriters frequently try to un-singer-songwriter themselves. And nobody has done it better than Fiona Apple. She has long claimed that hip-hop formed her, notwithstanding an intense immersion in melodies as well as the cockeyed verbal conveyances of the romantically unglued. She is 28.

Still, Apple has been too wise to assay rap. With the release of her new Extraordinary Machine she now has created three CDs that offer emotional worlds, lacy yet blunt, unavailable elsewhere; in this sense, she already is a Sinatra-level artist. Her albums, from the undone elegance of Tidal (1996) to the rhythmic upsets of 1999’s When the Pawn . . . , blaspheme the conventional singer-songwriter faith that words carry the show. On Machine she doesn’t give up on words, opening the sequence with a brilliant bit about not having spent all her time recently shoe shopping. But she doesn’t give in to words, either. Concluding with “Waltz”—one of two tracks produced by L.A.’s Jon Brion that survive Apple’s re-recording with two other studio guys, Mike Elizondo (an Eminem studio co-conspirator) and Brian Kehew—Apple sings that “if you don’t have a point to make/Don’t sweat it/You’ll make a sharp one being so kind.” These are the lines of someone who recognizes that her lyrics’ content amounts to but one element of her addictive net effect; these are the lines of someone who knows that moods and atmospheres and essences are nothing to get abstract about.

The title track and “Waltz” bookend Extraordinary Machine. Both excel, set to Brion’s signature command of crisp, idiomatic, Van Dyke Parks-influenced Hollywood symphonics. But the Elizondo-Kehew tracks top them. Here Apple eclipses everyday color and dimensionality. A less restless person might have settled for sonic sculpture; adapting crazy tunings (“O’ Sailor”) and the deliberately nutty so-off-they’re-on mid-’90s studio tricks hip-hop grew up on (“Better Version of Me”), Apple and her producers design and build exhilarating interiors and exteriors in which her romantic plights occur—the sad bedrooms and odd cathedrals and evening beer joints and scary terraces of Fiona Apple’s mind. She reacts to them all, with the liquid concrete of her great voice. She is an artist unblinded by anything—love, cabaret, men, the sanctity of windows. Apple, who sings a gorgeous melody about a lover who doesn’t believe in love, hates mush. She can’t stand the stuff.