Fiona Apple's seeming insistence on courting drama has always had a way of overshadowing her music. The kiddie-porn lite of her breakthrough video "Criminal," weird early interviews, an outburst at the Video Music Awards ("This world is bullshit!"), a nearly 100-word title for her second album, a six-year disappearing act followed by a fan-organized "Free Fiona" campaign… Each has provided better soundbites than her music, which always works better as a full-course meal than as pop snacks. Album number three, Extraordinary Machine, arrives on the heels of another newsworthy story, but one whose focus is, at least tangentially, her songs. And this batch deserves a close inspection.
Originally recorded with producer Jon Brion more than two years ago, the album was shelved—either by the label or Apple herself, depending on the spin—and then almost completely redone with hip-hop producer Mike Elizondo (Eminem, 50 Cent, Dr. Dre). Bootlegs of the shelved version were so readily available that, in spite of the lack of official release, it got mentioned and reviewed everywhere from webzines to The New York Times. Surprisingly, even after the six-year delay, Extraordinary Machine MK II didn't end up miles from those initial sessions or miles from Apple's last album. It's another solid set of passionate, angry, marvelously produced songs delivered by a singular voice, and it succeeds by following a muse that doesn't just ignore genre distinctions and pop delineations—it doesn't know they exist.
That wandering nature makes EM seem slightly uneven, even wobbly, but the risks reap serious dividends: The title track (one of two remaining from the Brion sessions) springs from some alternate-universe Disney movie in which Julie Andrews bounces back from a bad breakup by cavorting with plucked strings and animated oboes. Then there's the stunning "Not About Love," whose similarly vaudevillian vibe builds from simmering quietude into an ambitious piano vamp—about a breakup. Lyrically, Apple is as strong and defiant as ever, swaggering and threatening and demanding with lines both clever and lasting ("Oh you silly, stupid pastime of mine / You were always good for a rhyme"). Those in search of Apple's hookier moments won't be entirely disappointed, though: "O' Sailor" recalls her 1996 hit "Shadowboxer," and "Get Him Back" would fit right in with 1999's massively underrated When The Pawn… But Apple doesn't (and shouldn't, and wouldn't) serve herself best by looking back: Extraordinary Machine, in spite and occasionally because of its minor missteps and familiar subjects, sounds like nothing else in the pop world.