Here’s to the Machine

Now that the dust has settled

from the “Free Fiona” Internet campaign and we’ve had a chance to hear the evidence speak for itself — in the form of both the “official” Sony release of Apple’s

Extraordinary Machine

and also the Web-leaked “Jon Brion” version — maybe it’s time to consider a little sympathy for the devil. Maybe, in this case at least, the evil, dream-crushing, soulless record industry had the artist’s best interests in mind.

The impatience of major record labels is well documented. With the long-term vision of lemmings and an apparently Amish grasp of the Internet, they flounder in a haze of inefficiency, compensating for their vast losses on ill-chosen and ill-promoted new acts by leaning on their few commercially lucrative artists to churn out product, almost regardless of content, just to balance the books.

So get this: When Apple and longtime producer Jon Brion presented Extraordinary Machine to their Sony Records masters in 2003, the unimpressed corporate suits actually shelved the project. Even though Sony was fully aware that Apple — who’d had a triple-platinum debut in 1996’s Tidal and a platinum-plus seller with ’99’s When the Pawn . . . — could belch on disc and still shift units, it held back for the greater good of both label and artist. Supposedly, Apple herself had reservations about the album and intended to rework it with Brion, only Sony, which had already sunk $800,000 into the recordings, imposed restrictions on the process, at which she initially balked. Thus the long delay.

As murmurs spread about Apple’s ominous silence, a “Free Fiona” Internet campaign petitioned Sony to release the Brion recordings, which were later leaked onto the Web. Though the fans’ efforts moved Apple, she’d by then already embarked upon retooling Extraordinary Machine with hip-hopper Mike Elizondo (producer of 50 Cent and Eminem, bassist on When the Pawn . . .) and electronica experimentalist Brian Kehew. The revamped album was released in October and, partly thanks to all the fuss, attained Apple’s highest chart position to date.

With the initial draft of Extraordinary Machine, Apple and Brion indulged themselves inside a cocoon reminiscent of Brion’s cozy improvisational nights at L.A.’s Largo. Their previous work masterfully straddled art and pop, Apple spinning emotional strands sufficiently resilient to survive her eccentric structures and Brion’s carnivalesque embroidery. But Brion’s movie-soundtrack sensibilities and love of arcane instrumentation rendered Extraordinary Machine’s already semi-oblique utterances, loaded with archaic language and increasingly cloudy metaphors, a claustrophobic, overorchestrated in-joke.

Now that the “official” version of Extraordinary Machine has been out nearly two months, it’s still easy to sympathize with the label’s uneasiness. Even after Elizondo’s tastefully minimalist reworkings (only two of Brion’s treatments appear on the released version), the record lacks the suicidal seduction of Apple’s previous albums; it’s a stylistically scattered collection that sometimes sounds like rescues from the cutting-room floor. Her self-consciously quirky lyric tricks and jazz-lite phrasing remain, but they’re more technically musical this time, more intellectual than visceral.

Although essentially a breakup record, Extraordinary Machine doesn’t transmit the sensory train wreck that made Tidal and When the Pawn . . . — recorded when Apple was just 18 and 22 — addictions for dorm-room misfits, suburban moms and secretly sensitive guys alike. Apple’s signature mélange of multiple, often contradictory feelings within single lines has made way for a more ordered, song-by-song self-therapy, which, alongside the album’s tortured genesis and duo of producers, creates an uncomfortably undulating impression. She’s gone away, grown up and shed much of her nail-gnawing, shuddering-puppy allure, yet somehow sounds less worldly — and less otherworldly — than ever. Nevertheless, in the stained-velveteen bemusement of “O’ Sailor” and the disrobed, bottom-feeding regret of “Oh Well,” there are windows into the emotional labyrinth that we all traverse, and to which Apple’s earlier work lent shape and name.

Record labels are vilified for choking the creative process with haste, yet when they do the opposite, they get reamed for that, too. The original Extraordinary Machine, though fireside quaint, was made by Apple and Brion primarily for Apple and Brion, and Sony was justified in not tossing so personal a document to the marketplace wolves. Does a gaggle of überfans have the right to hear these recordings when seemingly even their creator was unhappy with them? Yes, our hard-earned dollars feed (or in Apple’s case, underfeed) our icons, but we’re not necessarily entitled to become audio paparazzi, long-lensing into their every musical doodle.

Now who’s unfairly pressuring artists?


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