10 Years Ago: Fiona Apple Makes a Dramatic Reentrance With ‘Extraordinary Machine’
Some albums come into the world with the ease of falling off of a log, which is a really strange cliche given that very few of us know anyone who has actually fallen off of a log. But back to the "with ease" thing, by the time you get to the end of this article, for example, Ryan Adams will have released three new albums (probably).
Other records, though, have troubled births, sometimes lingering for years before being released. Some of those troubled albums never get released, instead being relegated to legendary lost album status.
Fiona Apple's third album, Extraordinary Machine, escaped "lost album" status when it was released on October 4, 2005, but for a few years there, it looked like this was one was going to be the stuff of a "what could have been" article rather than a decade anniversary celebration. Six years had passed since the release of When the Pawn..., after all. That's longer than some musicians' entire careers.
The singer explained the long break to Rolling Stone a few weeks before Extraordinary Machine dropped. "The first couple of years [after the Pawn tour], I didn't have anything left in me to write about... That was a good thing, because it meant I'd done my job on the last batch of songs." Apparently Apple spent her time kicking around her new Los Angeles home, recovering from the whirlwind "overnight success" of the previous four years. Not that she was completely idle: During her downtime, Apple recorded a couple of duets with Johnny Cash and -- while we're on the subject of music legends -- Zach Galifianakis.
She was also meeting friend and producer John Brion for lunch each Tuesday. The two had been working together since her debut, 1997's Tidal, on which Brion played numerous instruments. He did the same on When the Pawn..., which he also produced. The two had one other thing in common: They were connected in their own ways to film director Paul Thomas Anderson.
Apple's connection was quite explicit. The singer and the director were something of a '90s-era alternative power couple, both considered innovators in their respective fields. Anderson's Magnolia and Apple's When the Pawn... were released within a month of each other in late '99, with all of the promotional duties and red carpet media attention that implies.
Brion's connection to the director was more tenuous. He was dating actress Mary Lynn Rajskub, who had a small role in Magnolia and a larger one in Anderson's 2002 film, Punch-Drunk Love, for which Brion was composing the music. During the making of that film, Rajskub left Brion, leaving the composer in the awkward position of having to watch hours of footage of the woman who broke his heart in order to finish the project.
Allegedly, Brion asked Apple to make an album to give him something non-Rajskub to focus on. In the same Rolling Stone article mentioned earlier, Apple notes that Brion asked her to "get started again," going on to say --
I gathered scraps for songs... and I ended up writing the rest on the way, a totally new approach for me. The upside was that I'd finished all these songs that otherwise might've been left in 'I don't care' land; the downside was that I didn't have enough time to live with the songs before recording them, so I really didn't know what I wanted.
Apple and Anderson had split, too, after the director cheated on her. The breakup colors the entire album and directly fuels lines like 'What you did to me made me see myself somethin' awful' and 'What wasted unconditional love / On somebody / Who doesn't believe in the stuff.'
By all accounts recording of the album went swimmingly, and by May 2003, the Brion- produced Extraordinary Machine was complete. This is where things get a little hazy for the album. In October of that year, Apple said in Rolling Stone that she was "about two weeks from being done" and provided a February 2004 release date. In January 2005, MTV reported that the album "has been gathering dust on Sony’s shelves, according to Jon Brion, the album’s producer. Label executives allegedly don’t consider it commercial enough for release."
Shortly thereafter, an Apple fan started a "Free Fiona" campaign and complaints started rolling into the singer's label. Radio stations began playing leaked tracks and bootlegs of the Brion/AppleExtraordinary Machine material appeared online. Well wishers were intent on liberating Apple's third album from its evil corporate overlord.
What they didn't know was that the singer was reworking much of the material with producers Mike Elizondo and Brian Kehew. Only two of the original Brion-produced tracks made the final cut, and they bookend the album: opening track "Extraordinary Machine" and album closer "Waltz (Better Than Fine)".
And so Apple fans ended up with two extraordinary Extraordinary Machines -- the unofficial, bootlegged Brion version and the official release, now 10 years old. The drama surrounding both the album and its creators is just a speck in the rear view mirror today. All that's left now is the music -- the glorious, weird music -- in both its incarnations.
Critical reception was mixed. Rolling Stone loved the album while Spin labeled Apple "so 20th century" in one of its more generous comments. Extraordinary Machine didn't sell as well as its predecessors, but it still racked up 600,000 sales and a Grammy nomination – not too shabby for an album with such a troubled birth.