Essential: Fiona Apple – Extraordinary Machine review

Dear Fiona Apple,

I’m sitting with you as you were in 2005 – finding yourself a machine. Extraordinary Machine, is the only album of yours I’ve never listened to up until now. I think I might be a fake fan. But to my credit, I don’t really listen to full albums much in general. Maybe I didn’t get around to Extraordinary Machine because it didn’t make it onto an episode of Girls like Valentine, or get covered on American Horror Story like Criminal.

No, Extraordinary Machine is different. Maybe because it wasn’t as palatable? Because Sony said it lacked a hit? Do you care if there’s a hit or not? I tend to think you don’t. If I wasn’t eight years old at the time, maybe I would have been one of the fans petitioning for the album’s release, and finding the leak online for a listen. Extraordinary Machine is almost defining of your discography with a titular track that slinks out like footsteps in a slapstick cartoon. ‘Be kind to me or treat me mean, I’ll make the most of it.’ I love the way it’s less of a revelation and more of a simple fact.

Extraordinary Machine has a jaunt to it, almost staccato in nature and syncopated. This album is all chin and angles. Even the percussion is jilted, and the horn section rushes through it. Your voice is sharper – less scales and riffs. The piano is heavier and drags its feet at times. Dragging its feet, but still moving. I can imagine steam chugging out of your chimney as you record, each gear turning just out of place. Each of your albums are a commotion. I don’t know if it is a play with sound so much as straddling two different tectonic recording processes. Parting Gift is just you and your piano while Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song) loops like playing blocks tumbling over before towering themselves right back up again.

In 2012, you cancelled tour dates to grieve your terrier pitbull, Janet. Your dog Mercy licks your face and yowls as a feature on Fetch The Bolt Cutters. Dogs are part of your ‘holy trinity.’ To sing ‘you looked as sincere as a dog / just as sincere as a dog does when it’s the food on your lips with which it’s in love’ on Parting Gift, I know how seriously you take the sincerity of dogs. And you understand when they want the treat you’re holding not to be held by you. ‘It ended bad but I love what we started,’ and so you say goodbye while singing about yelling and how not all the time spent was a waste, at least not at the beginning. Red isn’t symbolizing love on Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song), it’s just rust. When you say you ‘need to be bled dry to quit,’ I wonder how much I’m reading into it. Some people either need to find a way to make their sick relationship work or never see each other again and you want both. And fuck, I think that’s a normal reaction, right? I’m sick in the head too, to be honest.

Not About Love is clearly produced by a guy who’s co-wrote for 50 Cent, Eminem, and Mary J. Blige – that quick middle part being the closest you ever get to spitting bars. ‘Change the name of the game ’cause he lost,’ the signifier that you’re finally done. Fiona, this really makes me want to fight Paul Thomas Anderson. I would fight Paul Thomas Anderson for you. Or because of you. I feel like you wouldn’t want me to, in all of your fury you never advocated for retaliation. But like seriously: fuck this guy.

Window is punctuated with horns, using the piano to pedal stop and go. Sometimes things just have to break to see clearly. Sometimes glass just needs to be shattered. You need to feel your fists against something cold and hard and you’d rather your knuckles contact the inanimate than ‘him or her’ or yourself. Especially you, presenting yourself so fragile as to be shattered, but so sharp to act as a shard. And you waltz off, just like that. Giving us one last song to sing before keeping it moving, Waltz (Better Than Fine) sauntering around satire.

Extraordinary Machine is detailed in a way your other albums aren’t; here your life is filled with linear annotations rather than totality. Please, Please Please is the first song that glimpses the liberation Fetch The Bolt Cutters sees through. It steps aside and moves forward, underlining the ask with percussion. Sometimes what feels like love is just ‘something familiar’ and here you at least acknowledge this. It’s an acute feeling, listening to Extraordinary Machine after the fact, feeling put on the spot by the love and the anger and the humiliation. Maybe that’s why I love how brassy Get Him Back is – pacing back and forth ploying. ‘As I figure how to kill what I cannot catch.’ Are you getting him back with punishment or asking him to return? It’s all the perfect lead into Better Version Of Me.

Nobody searches for themselves as truly as you do. You say home is where your ‘habits have a habitat’ but just last March you invited The New Yorker into your home for a profile, showed us all the rooms in the house. What changed? Has the ‘frightened, fickle person/fighting, cryin’, kickin’, cursin’’ transformed into the ‘good man in a storm?’ I think both can and should exist.

Extraordinary Machine is hard won. It’s direct – with a tongue so quick it just barely manages to match the feeling with wit. All that time suffering is finely expressed. You are resilient if nothing else; this album is a testimony to your flexibility. A disjointed production, and opposing stories about why the original record was shelved. You don’t care about hits, but maybe you care about the listener who, two weeks later, finds themselves muttering a clever little phrase over and over, and wondering what song it dropped out of, what feeling and time.

Yours, Sage Shemroske

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