There will be reviews of Fiona Apple's third album that do not compare the official, primarily Mike Elizondo-produced shiny nickel to the leaked, completely Jon Brion-produced quirky five-cent piece that came before it. This will not be one of them. After six years, we now have two versions of a new Fiona Apple record. One is a brilliant collaboration with Brion, who was recently praised for another collaboration, his work with Kanye West on the rapper's Late Registration. The other is an obvious step down, a group of nearly uniformly remarkable songs with production that nearly always makes the wrong decisions.
To be fair, questions remain that will probably never be answered. Was the leaked version ever finished? Probably not. Who created the track-listing for the original? It is surprisingly much better than the new order, most notably for its placement of the title track near the end. On the official version it's moved to the front, where it strikes a false chord for the rest of the album, which is nothing like it, particularly now that Brion's work has been replaced nearly everywhere else. ("Waltz (Better Than Fine)" is the only other track that isn't new or reworked.) The re-recorded vocals are a mistake as well, though not nearly as much as on "Not About Love," which along with a defanged "Red, Red, Red," is the real tragedy of the new version. Not only have Brion's strings been replaced by an indescribably awkward alt-rock guitar riff and a misplaced drum beat, but Apple's vocals have lost all of their bite and passion. On Brion's work, she seemed hungry, ready to get back into it all. Here she retains the emotion that such a talented singer can muster on a good day but none of the rawness that signifies her best work.
Just when it seems like all is lost, a new song redeems it all. "Parting Gift," the only track not included on the leak (most likely because it had not been written yet) is a simple track: Fiona and Her Piano. Elizondo smartly leaves it alone, and Apple sounds better here than anywhere else on the album. Everything about the song screams perfection, and it may even be remembered as the crowning jewel in her catalogue. On the other side of the spectrum, "Window," the album's weakest song, is improved here by a soft bass line and a slightly quicker tempo, though it still falls far short of the rest of the compositions in both melody and lyrics.
Apple is such an important artist with such a strong following that it's amazing to think that she has only released thirty-two songs in her nearly ten-year-long career. But that relatively small number of songs belies the impact of her work, even past the initial importance of Tidal, her 1996 debut. You could probably find someone who has obsessed over every second of each of those thirty-two songs.
Apple has said she was afraid the original version sounded too much like a Jon Brion record instead of a Fiona Apple record. How strange, then, that not only would she keep the track with the most Brion-like production, she would move it to the front of the album. But what she couldn't possibly understand is that her voice is so commanding that it would be impossible for it to be overshadowed. Brion's work brought energy to the album and an original aesthetic that, like his work on 1999's When the Pawn, doesn't sound like anything else out there.
If Elizondo wanted to stick Fiona in front of a piano and let her sing her heart out, so be it. But instead, he has made a record that sounds like every other singer-songwriter record out there, just with better songs. If the artist had chosen to take the necessary steps to finish the original recordings in a way that made her content, there would be a lot more to say about the new Fiona Apple record. Instead, we are left with two truths we already knew: The woman can sing, and she sure as hell knows how to write great songs.