In 2007, in Baltimore, I went to see Nickel Creek and Fiona Apple in concert. I didn’t know a single song by Fiona Apple, but Nickel Creek was my favorite band, so I was excited for them and didn’t care about her. And then she sang “Extraordinary Machine.” This song describes an entire lifestyle that, at 16, I wanted to emulate. At 21, I think I understand it a little better, and I still hold it as my mantra: Be kind to me, or treat me mean. I’ll make the most of it; I’m an extraordinary machine.
And the album of the same name that follows this track is a powerhouse of bluesy goodness, rage, regret, and a stubborn determination to not let the world (or bad relationships) define us as people.
Fiona Apple’s smooth alto voice glides through a progression of relationships in “Get Him Back” and how the growing history of bad men causes her to give up on one who could be good, but she decides to fight for him when she realizes her mistake. “O’ Sailor” pushes the question of why that we always so bitterly want to demand in the heat of a break up. Why would you say what you’ve said and then let it go “by the boards?” In “Parting Gift,” we hear the pain of knowing that her relationship was so beautiful but so wrong. “Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song)” was my first song addiction on this album after “Extraordinary Machine;” why do we continue to feel things for those who have hurt us? Why do we still want them? Why?!?! It doesn’t make sense. I must be sick in the head. It’s the only logical conclusion. — Each of these songs wrestles with what we do and how we feel once we’ve been hurt in a very painful, passionate way.
“Oh Well” drips with resentment and resignation to how we let others affect our self-image in negative ways. And if “Oh Well” drips with it, “Not About Love” pounds it out like a tsunami. And “Red Red Red” sets the water on to simmer as she seeks to understand why relationships, why love, just doesn’t seem to work. Let’s not even talk about the boiling point in “Window” (brilliant, brilliant song).
But ah, Fiona Apple’s got a leg up on most people in her break-up album, and it’s buried in “Extraordinary Machine” (and “Better Version of Me” and “Please Please Please” and “Waltz (Better Than Fine)”). Here it is: No matter what other people say to you, what they do to you, how they treat you, no matter what any of that is or has been, you can overcome it and be bigger than it, better than it. You are an extraordinary machine. Even if you don’t feel like it yet, even if you know that you have some work to do, there is a better version of you, and you can pursue it and you should. Just realize that most people rest on their laurels and never try to accomplish anything, then realize that their goals aren’t doing you any good. You can be better than fine without them.
So let’s check this against my standards for a break-up album real quick:
Overall, Extraordinary Machine not only searches through rage, sorrow and frustration, but it also actively empowers people to pursue the best versions of themselves in spite of negative circumstances (“…be kind to me or treat me mean…”). At least in my limited experience, everything on this album feels very rooted in real human emotion. And from what I know of Fiona Apple as a person, she should know what she’s talking about (do your own snooping) when it comes to human emotion. And the balance is spot on.
This album is probably the most mature album socially, musically, and lyrically. Apple is a poet, and I wish this post could just be the lyrics to her songs (“I don’t understand about diamonds and why men buy them. What’s so impressive about a diamond except the mining?” or “I don’t want a home, I’d ruin that. Home is where my habits have a habitat. Why give it turn?” or “Those boon times went bust. My feet of clay, they dried to dust. The red isn’t the red we painted, it’s just rust” or “Even when the window was cleaned, I still can’t see for the fact that it’s so clear I can’t tell what I’m looking through”). I wish I could just tell you all of these songs. They are fantastic. This album is the most lyrically charged album on this list.
And up to this point, I’d say it’s also the most musically developed album as well. Don’t get me wrong — I love The Beatles, Gotye, and Adele. But this album is an intricate blend of jazz and alternative rock sewn together with punk attitude and pain. And listening to Fiona Apple’s voice is like listening to cinnamon cocoa. It’s a warm, soothing, delicious treat covered in spice.
Apple bookends this very beautiful and very powerful album with “Extraordinary Machine” and “Waltz (Better Than Fine)”, two songs that beg people to be themselves and not to cave to pressure to be something else. And she lets it be okay to be single (which is what you are after a break-up, let me oh-so-painfully remind you). The song goes, “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.” Both of these two songs lend the rest of the album a whimsical, individual nature that declares, “Look at me. I’m human and complete on my own. It’s important to care about other people, but they don’t define me. I am myself, and that is fantastic.” It’s beautiful. And that’s why Extraordinary Machine by Fiona Apple is my number two pick for the five best break-up albums.