Better Than Fine

A tale of two albums, starring Fiona Apple.

In an interview posted on his blog on Tuesday, Oct. 4, the day Extraordinary Machine was finally released by Sony's Epic Records, music writer Sasha Frere-Jones asks Fiona Apple about her relationship with Jon Brion, Machine's original producer, in the wake of her decision to rework the album with another producer, Mike Elizondo. "We never really had a conversation about it," she says. "It was assumed that I was going to be trying other things, and he had moved on to other things, and I know he loves Mike, and he knew about me starting to do stuff with Mike. I'm sure that he just wants me to be happy with my songs."

Now reread Apple's response, substituting "myself" for "my songs." It sounds very much like the kind of thing she'd say about an ex-boyfriend's reaction to her dating someone new. The analogy may seem far-fetched, but Apple, 27, has been writing about damaged romance since she was a teenager, and Machine is widely considered a soundtrack to her breakup with director P.T. Anderson. In the case of Apple and Brion, who produced her 1999 album, When the Pawn . . . , another common relationship dynamic was in play. In the Frere-Jones interview, Apple takes the blame for their incompatibility: "On Extraordinary Machine, I didn't know what I wanted, and I didn't help him at all." It's not you, it's me.

But was it really Apple? When you listen to the version of Machine leaked last year on the Internet—a version generally attributed to Brion, though he claims it was altered following his involvement with it—you hear good- to-great songs, some of them among Apple's best, straining to break free from cluttered, misguided production. Full disclosure: I heard the official release of Machine before the leaked version, so my opinion of the latter may be biased. Still, enough time has passed that it seems fair to crown a winner. The proper album—with its lovely additional song ("Parting Gift"), radically different sequencing, and production by Elizondo on all but two tracks (Brion's work on the title and closing songs remains intact)—has something vital that its predecessor lacked: focus. And for a lyricist as witty and a songwriter as inspired and unorthodox as Apple, that intangible element makes all the difference.

Take "Not About Love," the leaked version's opener. Like several of Apple's most memorable songs, it begins with a pensive, rolling piano figure before introducing dense lyrics. After the piano intro, Brion adds a baroque cello counterpoint before the vocals come in. Fine. But then Brion's busy cello keeps hounding Apple, getting in your ear while you're trying to figure out what the poor girl's trying to say, and when her rich, supple voice moves upward, a small orchestra seems determined to follow it. Elizondo, in contrast, merely pairs the piano with light-handed percussion, which creates drama—not melodrama, as per Brion.

This is a distinction that soon becomes a pattern. On Brion's version of "Red, Red, Red," the most subdued of the new songs, the weird sound effects underpinning the percussion resemble nothing so much as werewolves howling. This touch o' Halloween has absolutely nothing to do with the lyrics, some of the funniest and wisest on the record. When Apple sings: "I don't understand about diamonds/And why men buy them/What's so impressive about a diamond/Except the mining?" in Elizondo's version of the song, her observation (which develops into a metaphor for—you guessed it—relationships) feels sharp enough to cut glass, because the producer trusts her rueful voice to communicate its meanings clearly above a simple snare brush and a warm, unintrusive bath of sound. In its simplicity, it's a masterful treatment of a mature song—and maturity is what differentiates Machine from Apple's previous albums.

Despite what some of Apple's more ardent fans (and some of the press) initially thought, the long delay between Pawn and Machine seems to have been due as much to Apple's doubts about the new record as to Sony execs' insistence that it be commercially viable. I'm therefore hesitant to declare that the leaked version's inferiority is entirely Brion's fault; Apple has told Frere-Jones and others that she didn't know what she wanted when she and Brion worked together, and that's believable. Who among us hasn't been dumped because our partner didn't know what she wanted, didn't know herself well enough to make something good with someone else? Sometimes the cliché is true—sometimes it really is them. Listening to Brion's version, you get the sense that he's simply doing what the partner of an intelligent, confused person has to do: trying everything to see what works. Apple's vocals sound more confident in the official release; they're also higher in the mix. It's easy to imagine that Elizondo put them there because she'd finally figured out what her own lyrics meant to her.

Even if Elizondo ended up being Apple's better match this time around, what ultimately makes Machine extraordinary isn't his work on it. Instead, it's Apple's realization that boyfriends—musical and otherwise—come and go, and that the only one who can save you is you. On the official release, the sequencing tells the story. After resigning herself, in the penultimate song, to a romantic drought ("Not About Love"), Apple sends a sweet valentine to her ex-producer, singing out "Waltz (Better Than Fine)" just as Brion had her do it: over her own piano flourishes, theatrical and cheery—followed by a tasteful instrumental break, Brion's swirling strings and all. Her third albums, both of them, are done, and she's alone again—but happily so. "If you don't have a date/Celebrate/Go out and sit on the lawn/And do nothing/'Cause it's just what you must do and/Nobody does it anymore," she sings on "Waltz." Not only has the long-lovesick Apple found pleasure in solitude, she's managed to get her ex-producer and her most recent one on the same album—making, as they say, beautiful music together.

Fiona Apple plays Paramount Theatre at 8 p.m. Wed., Nov. 23. $40.

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