Fiona Apple – Better Version of Me

Extraordinary Machine
Year :
Regina Spektor / Jon Brion / Aimee Mann

If I’m butter (if I’m butter) then Ms. Apple is a hot knife. Her voice is smoky and alluring, her mind is quick and complex and highly literate, and it doesn’t hurt that she has a sad beauty to her. It wasn’t always this way, though. Back when she was more commonly viewed as the unstable waif who thought (quite rightly in retrospect) that everything was bullshit, in that era where all female singers sort of got lumped unfairly into a sad mash of Imbruglias and McLachlans and Crows and other well-meaning but ultimately not-very-compelling Lilith sorts, it was difficult to see how Ms. Apple stood out. In such a climate, I feel it is fully fair of me to have been biased, especially in light of her 50 word titled follow-up… how pretentious from a woman who was just one more in the milieu!

Then my friend Leah began getting super excited over Extraordinary Machin. This was years after her last release, when the world figured she was gone and over. That she wasn’t gone was enough to make me intrigued, and what I began hearing about this lost album made me even more so. There is a certain mythology that happens when an album is covered up and yet largely thought to be one of the greatest statements an artist has made. This happened to Brian Wilson’s Smile, to The Who’s Lifehouse project, and it seemed to start crackling with similar life around Fiona’s upcoming album. So eventually, I caved; I searched; I listened. “Better Version of Me” was the first track I came across. The sheer evolution blew me away, so I went for more. Sadly, the original leaked tracks are not what the album became, because they are flawless, but the songs are certainly worth it in any context.

What makes the song stunning is partly the challenge in the composition… it was not the simple pop song of Tidal (although even then her craft was far more solid than I’d previously given credit for), but it was truly crafted to reflect the jangly, jagged mindset she seems to have been in for this album and for the period it was being created. It becomes a piece of a very naked, honest, raw whole, despite the extra polish of the finished release. And I get it. I get her. I love her cynicism playing off her contentment with herself. I feel her discomfort trying to hone in on who she is. I can go back and see her older work as the skeletons of these avenues of thought. And really, I can appreciate her stellar wordplay. (This song marks the first time I’ve ever heard the word “folderol” used in any context. How can I not love that?) Coming to terms with ones demons, especially framed in some of the most clever turns of phrases in modern music, and embracing them as part of what makes one special, is a hell of a powerful thing to do, and it’s something that rings true with me. It’s a constant struggle to balance the two sides, and Fiona drew me in with her regular ability to bridge that gap.

The album leads to an interesting reflection in this month of covers and similar discussions, however. The remix fits into a strange niche: it exists somewhere in the Venn Diagram of a cover song, an official release, and an outright theft. Do we need to remix a song? Shouldn’t we just let it be as it is, if it was good enough to release in the first place? It is especially bizarre to hear a song remixed in a club… suddenly the song you knew has the grating, synthetic, repetitive thump of every other song in the playlist. I recently heard “Royals” set to the same excessive electrobuzz as the sort of lifestyle music Lorde is poking fun at. It suggests that the DJ didn’t listen to the song… they just heard it was popular, and shoved it into the dance mix. The best/worst part is, everyone kept dancing along, unfazed. Do we listen to our music? Do we listen to remixes? Do we just let it happen to us and not analyze any of it?

Extraordinary Machine, however, is its own conundrum. It is, in many ways, a remix album of songs that were never officially released. The leaked originals, intended once to be the album proper, become for all intents and purposes a set of demo tracks. The circumstances of the album, however, are such that the biggest fans heard these versions first. They fell in love with an album that would never officially exist. For reasons known best to Fiona, God, and Mike Elizondo, the entire album was re-recorded in a smoother, more polished rendition. This seems particularly illogical looking at Fiona’s most recent The Idler Wheel…, which is more along the lines of the rough, intimate chaos of the original Extraordinary Machine sessions. The original mixes seem to fit the personal struggles of the actual album content. The remixes, even if specifically done by Fiona herself, only seem to be an exercise in alteration, not in true songcraft.

The question, to me, is this: do we love originals because they are how the song is meant to be, or do we love them because we hear them first? Fiona’s album complicates this completely, because the original and the release are wholly different animals. Should we be listening to the official release as the official statement, or the original? If it’s the original, should we be praising all demos above releases? Would I love the rougher originals as much if I had never heard them before hearing the “official” release? Music becomes immediate nostalgia and immediate connection. It gets into our heads and our souls. It is entirely possible that everything we love and hate and prefer and don’t prefer comes exclusively from the state of mind we were in at the time, the time and place in which we heard it, and yes, what version we knew first. It is a bit concerning, because many of us have certain ideals when it comes to quality or preferences. What does it mean for us if our tastes are so ephemeral as this?

In this case, I like to think I’d always have loved the originals more, simply because they sound right. They speak to a complex young woman thrust into the limelight too soon and trying to adjust. They speak of a woman maturing through her demons and honing her sense of peace. The clash and tension of the sparer yet more discordant originals are the clash and tension of someone who is both “a frightened, fickle person” and yet sees “a better version” of herself, someone who later states she is an “extraordinary machine” and “better than fine.” This is a theme throughout the album: we may seem broken or imperfect, strained or scared, but we’re still OK. These tracks, also, are better than fine in their original composition, despite the rougher, tenser results.

I get to see Ms. Apple live this evening, something I would never have expected I would do a decade ago. I am excited, I won’t lie, and my friend got ridiculously super tickets for the show, so that makes it even better. I have heard mixed reviews of Fiona’s headspace lately. Honestly, that only makes it all more interesting. This song, and its compatriots on the album, resonated most purely as diamonds in the rough. There’s every reason to believe that Fiona works best in this rougher-hewn state. Catching her in the moment of inception, instead of at the end of complex negotiations, endless remastering, and general, well, folderol, is going to be its own sort of magic. Even if I end up liking the recorded versions better.

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Alex Lupica (@Alex_Soundtrack) has been in love with music since he was a toddler, despite its infidelities. (Really, music? Nu-metal? How could you!). Alex is Editor-in-Chief at The Daily Soundtrack.

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