SOMETIMES when I hear music on the radio, I think of the fact that other people are also listening. People possibly not as perfect as me. With pasts and regrets different from my own.
Post-love songs of the bitter, you-wronged-me variety make me wonder how many of my fellow radio listeners are arriving fresh from the other end of a romantic transaction. The bad end, you know. But does it matter? Such is the gift of music that even the dumpers and the abandoners get to imagine themselves as the victimized and the innocent when they sing along to classics like Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive."
Fiona Apple's 1996 debut album Tidal sold a tidy 2.7 million copies. It was an instant classic of the I-hope-you-suffer-like-I-have-suffered genre. Yet, among its buyers, there had to have been more than a few womanizers, manipulators, and others in the business of messing with the heads of pretty young women just like the temperamental and beautiful Miss Apple.
IT'S A SHORT STEP from hearing sympathetic music about the savage wars of romance to wondering what real-life events inspired such poetry. So it is to not surprising that Apple's new album, Extraordinary Machine, her third, would be more widely discussed for its accompanying soap opera--involving a famous now-ex boyfriend, a mutual friend who was also her producer but whose work was largely cashiered before being released online, and a few well-known second-order characters--than for its music, as released last month on CD. Apple has done quite a bit to invite such treatment, having carved out a melodramatic role for herself in the music scene by, among other things, telling an MTV Awards show audience, "Everybody out there that's watching, everybody that's watching this world, this world is bulls--and you shouldn't model your life about what you think that we think is cool."
This youthful impatience with sometime allies and the clichés of pageantry has not always served the singer well. She, of course, used the title of her second album to return serve to a music journalist whom she thought had crossed her in print. This alone would not have been a problem, but the indecipherable 90-word title itself might have taken an award for Most Self-Indulgent Gesture By A Female Vocalist (an especially competitive category, it so happens).
WITH HER THIRD ALBUM, however, the 28-year-old Apple proves that, public tantrums aside, she remains one of the few singular talents with any following in pop music. Her default sound of one-half piano and one-half dead-serious voice has expanded to accommodate a much wider and more interesting emotional and musical sensibility than she is being given credit for.
Apple has answered the standing challenge to the singer-songwriter--whether to go quiet and risk not being noticed or to adopt a bigger, more band-like sound in production and risk drowning out the individual voice--for the most part triumphantly.
"Extraordinary Machine," the most elegant track on the album threads cabaret singing through a perfectly droopy orchestra arrangement. The song requires a little more agility and classical training than Apple's singing always offers, but the result is nevertheless a halfway magnificent piece of songwriting, performance, and production. One waits impatiently for more singers to risk so much on an opening track, or to take an equal interest in enriching new pop music with ideas that come only from listening to the classically grounded and verbally playful masters of old pop music. "Tymps," the juicy, hip-hop-influenced fifth track does not require as much jazzy agility, but is just as spry and more consistent as a result.
The second track represents, unfortunately, one of the album's few blown opportunities. Talking and stalking over heavy-handed drumming with little help from spacey atmospherics, the overly long "Get Him Back" encourages the impression of Apple as too busy exercising demons to concentrate on tightening her music.
"O'Sailor," a natural choice for a single, nicely updates the classic Apple griping of the disappointed lover. Even better for its kind, though not as gently metaphorical with its subject, is the slow-motion putdown "Parting Gift," a return to the piano-plus-voice formula. The still-life comment of dribbling piano builds to a big dismissing, "Oh you silly, stupid pastime of mine, you were always good for a rhyme." Sitting on a midway landing is Apple's best word-picture and a perfect example of her me-talking-about-you-talking-about-me-type obsessiveness: "I took off my glasses while you were yelling at me once / More than once / So's not to see you see me react / Should've put 'em on, Should've put 'em on again / so I could see you see me, sincerely yelling back." To find the fun, mad, sneering music in such an egocentric but highly intelligent sensibility is something of a feat.
Like "Tymps," "Window" shows Apple under some novel influences, beginning with a rhythm line that sounds like sticks on clay pots. Breaking a window because she takes it as affecting her own clarity, Apple pours forth a less acidic complaint than usual, this one all the more knowing for its tacit admission that the singer is a head case. Just one of several spots where Apple's dramatic rendering has grown flexible, loose, and ironic in its still-very-early maturity. The "I" in these songs may even be reaching the level of generality where the listener is hearing something more universal than the particular moaning of this particular young woman.
Where Apple's anger steers her wrong is in the incoherent, unintentionally funny "Red, Red, Red" which would surely sound five times better if it had been sung in a foreign language. Several critics have singled out this track for its haunted beauty, but the lyrics being especially important with Apple and especially weak here; I have trouble not laughing at its heavy-handed symbolism long enough to really like this song.
"This is not about love / because I am not in love / In fact, I can't stop falling out" sings Apple on the second-to-last track in what might stand as a postlapsarian motto for her work. But it's more varied and textured than several critics allow. The fever and the lashing-out have given way to a deeper, wiser, and funnier Apple, whose wicked songwriting is finding an appropriately sophisticated sound to go along with it.
Postscript: The archness quotient is a bit higher in another CD I recently picked up, Let It Die by Feist, aka Leslie Feist, which was re-released this Spring by Interscope. The Canadian singer-songwriter is perhaps best known for her work with hipsters such as Broken Social Scene and Kings of Convenience, but her album is deserving of admiration far and wide. Over folksy strumming on the opening track "Gatekeeper," Feist twirls her bird-like voice up and down with a touch light enough to make Fiona Apple's eyes green with envy. (So Apple's are already green.) Feist also wrote about half the songs. The other half express a range of taste that one might call underrepresented in the adult alternative market. She covers both the Bee-Gees and Ron Sexsmith, who may have already replaced Leonard Cohen as Canada's coolest songwriter. Frenchy, folksy, sometimes disco, other times earthy. Feist would be annoying if she weren't so good.
David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.