Forgoing the small-talk regarding record label battles and six-year hiatuses, Fiona Apple’s third album looks past the bullshit and stands on its on as a work of witty lyricism, whimsical arrangements and warm harmonies. Picking up right where 1999’s When The Pawn… left off, Extraordinary Machine blends the comfort of Apple’s angst with new-to-the-fray elements of theatricality and baroque instrumentalism. The stop-and-start melodies of tracks like “Better Version of Me” and “Tymps” look back the bouncy gems that littered When The Pawn… while intense piano ballads “Parting Gift” and “Waltz (Better Than Fine)” serve to illustrate the mature, though still jaded persona that Apple first created with the release of 1996’s Tidal.
The album’s title track flirts with critical expectations as it combines pop structure and dramatic yet gleeful instrumentals in what works as the ideal introduction to the remaining eleven cuts. Dainty melodies, punctuating bell tolls and a brass section that sounds reminiscent of an early Disney cartoon provide an ideal backdrop as Apple’s voice flutters and fluxes between alto and falsetto. Content in milking a Rufus Wainwright-esque extravagance in her songwriting, Apple draws from the past even as she matures as a lyricist. Similarly, the songstress fails to disappoint as she returns to the piano for a number of songs that capitalize on her often fevered key-pounding technique. “Window” couples Apple’s bitter voice and aggressive methodology over biting lyrics like, “So I had to break the window / It just had to be / Better that I break the window / Than him or her or me.”
Harsh words of disappointment, disgust and confusion litter Extraordinary Machine as exquisitely as they have on past works. Just as before, Apple prides herself on being able to poignantly juxtapose the melodic and catchy with the aggressive and enraged. Always one to bear a grudge, she croons “Everything good I deem too good to be true / Everything else is just a bore” during the sullen “O’ Sailor” – a song that speaks to jilted lovers and early Apple fans simultaneously.
By its close, Extraordinary Machine proves itself as both a catalogue of past efforts and a look forward towards what hopes to be a long career for Miss Apple. In a business so willing to capitalize on the marketability of mediocre singer/songwriters, Apple stands a head above the rest. Hopefully the drama that surrounded Machine’s release (and its subsequent critical acclaim) will teach the industry a valuable lesson, and keep Apple in the studio for years to come.
[Aly Comingore is entering a speed typing competition ASAP.]