Fiona Apple's newest album catches fire-unofficially.
At the end of Barton Fink, the Coen brothers' darkly hilarious 1991 study of writer's block, the titular protagonist-a tweedy bespectacled playwright-turned-screenwriter with an Eraserhead haircut, played by John Turturro-finally has an artistic breakthrough.
Cracking the heretofore unbreakable code of the Wallace Beery wrasslin' picture, Fink pecks furiously at his typewriter for days, pounding out what he's sure is a masterpiece, somehow weaving together the Book of Daniel, the tenement plight of the Lower East Side fishmongers and large men in tights wrestling with their souls.
When he turns in the work to Capital Pictures, his corporate masters tell him it's unacceptable. Firing him would be too kind, they say. Instead anything he writes will be the property of Capital Pictures, and Capital Pictures will not produce anything he writes.
"You're not a writer, Fink. You're a goddamn write-off !" the studio head spits. Deflated, Fink sheepishly explains that he "just tried to show you something beautiful, something about all of us."
An echo of that moment has rippled through richly appointed corporate suites at record labels for many years, and Fiona Apple is the latest high-profile alt-leaning artist to have her quirky masterwork deemed "too uncommercial" for release and damned to corporate purgatory.
But a funny thing happened to Apple's new Extraordinary Machine on the way to history's dustbin: Somebody dropped it into the digital slipstream of the Internet, where, as songs are wont to do, it spread like a virus on P2P sites.
Big Champagne, a Web concern that tracks these things, recently reported that at least 38,000 computer users had the album on their hard drives. Extraordi-nary Machine has become something of a hip media cause celebre, generating sympathetic ink in The New York Times, Newsweek, Spin and Rolling Stone-not bad for an album nobody can buy.
The attention isn't being paid simply because Extraordinary Machine fits neatly into the always compelling narrative arc of the corporate jackboot on the neck of creativity. The fact is, Extraordinary Machine is, well, extraordinary-full of complex arrangements, richly antiqued textures and the kind of ornate West Coast pop experimentalism that drove Smile-era Brian Wilson mad.
Extraordinary Machine was fashioned by Apple in collaboration with Jon Brion, the critically acclaimed producer (Rufus Wainwright, Aimee Mann) and soundtrack creator (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Punch-Drunk Love) noted for ornamenting sparkling singer/ songwriter fare with the pneumatic wheeze of old keyboards and clanking circus percussion. In short, if Willy Wonka made records, they'd sound like Jon Brion.
Apple is in fine voice, sounding wise and weary beyond her years, alternately furious and fragile, pounding the horse teeth-sometimes thunderously so-to underscore each accusation and the hall-of-mirrors recriminations that follow.
Sometimes she sounds like Carole King pushed through the looking glass or Judy Garland over the rainbow. Other times she conjures fever-dream reveries in which Kate Bush meets Cypress Hill. Still other times she sounds like Bj�rk frolicking in the gilded palace of old-timey art-song. That this music is forbidden only deepens its considerable mystique.
Apple seeped into the public consciousness with 1996's Tidal, a jazzy piano-led collection of survivor's songs by the then-19-year-old babysitter chanteuse. Hollow-eyed and preternaturally photogenic, Apple stripped down to her panties for the infamous "Criminal" video. This Barely Legal buzz took on a through-the-glass-darkly tint when Apple spoke plainly to interviewers of being raped at age 12.
Tidal went on sell millions. Apple followed that up with the heady When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks Like a King ... her first full-blown collaboration with Brion. That album mapped her steady maturation as an artist and went platinum in the process. But it never quite matched the multimillion margins of her debut.
In July 2002 Apple and Brion commenced work on Extraordinary Machine, setting up a recording studio in an old Hollywood mansion and even jetting over to London to record strings 'n' things at Abbey Road Studios. In May 2003, according to Brion, the album was finished and handed over to Sony executives, who promptly declared it lacking a sure-fire radio single. Reportedly Brion and Apple went back into the studio to cook up a radio song, though this too was rejected, and Extraordinary Machine was shelved indefinitely.
Last year a couple songs leaked to the Web, and a modest but vocal Free Fiona movement was born, with a website (www.freefiona.com) a petition (33,000 signatories and growing) and clever protests (sending Sony executives thousands of apples affixed with names of Apple's supporters).
By February of this year the entire album mysteriously became available for download by anyone with a working knowledge of Google and the P2P networks.
Curiously, as the buzz about Extraordinary Machine continues to snowball, Sony maintains it has no plans to release the album. Brion offers no further comment, and Apple remains mum. (Not that I didn't try. I even called her dad's house, but I got the machine.)
One thing's for sure, though. This cat-in-the-hat of an album is out of the bag. These days, if the suits don't get it, too bad. There's always the nuclear option: If you really believe in the music, set it free. The revolution may not be televised, but it will be digitized.
And don't cry for Fiona. We'll be hearing from her, and I don't mean a postcard.
PW's Music Issue 2014