Song of the Day #231: ‘Oh Well (unreleased version)’ – Fiona Apple

fiona2After When the Pawn… came out, Apple sort of disappeared. Then several years later, in a New York Times magazine interview, producer Jon Brion spoke in glowing terms about new tracks they’d recorded for an album to be called Extraordinary Machine. No release date was set.

Months passed and still no word on the new album. Rumors circulated that the studio wasn’t happy with the songs and refused to release it. But no word from Apple herself.

And then somebody leaked the full album to a radio station and a treasured bootleg was born. Some guessed the leak came from Brion himself, eager for the work to reach an audience, but he denies it. Whatever the source, the songs quickly found their way to the Internet and Extraordinary Machine had its first (unofficial) release.

Even with the songs unpolished, in need of mixing and mastering, this was easily the best album of that year. Dense and emotional, laden with strings and complicated percussion, the songs picked up where When the Pawn… left off. Whatever the story behind the delay, it clearly had nothing to do with a creative slump by Apple.

The album did eventually get an official release, but I’ll save that for tomorrow.

In the meantime, here’s one of the standout tracks from the Brion-produced version of Extraordinary Machine. In that New York Times article, Brion mentioned the song ‘Oh Well’ in glowing terms, saying this:

”I cried the first time I heard her play this,” Brion says. ”We were at Ocean Way, Sinatra’s old studio, and I just put my head down on the table and cried.”

Indeed, her vocal performance in this song is painfully raw. The song is presumably about her breakup with film director Paul Thomas Anderson and I can’t think of a better example of a singer experiencing a song rather than just performing it. I much prefer this version to the smoother one released on the official copy of Extraordinary Machine.

This song is also a great example of Apple’s fondness for SAT words. You not only get ‘stentorian’ but this gem: “You came upon me like a hypnic jerk when I was just about settled.” That one I had to look up. A hypnic jerk is that jolt your body feels sometimes as you’re drifting off to bed. What a splendid image. What a splendid song.

What you did to me made me
See myself something different
Though I try to talk sense to myself
But I just won’t listen

Won’t you go away
Turned yourself in
You’re no good at confession
Before the image that you burned me in
Tries to teach you a lesson

What you did to me made me see myself somethin’ awful
A voice once stentorian is now again meek and muffled
It took me such a long time to get back up the first time you did it
I spent all I had to get it back, and now it seems I’ve been outbidded

My peace and quiet was stolen from me
When I was looking with calm affection
You were searching out my imperfections

What wasted unconditional love
On somebody
Who doesn’t believe in the stuff

You came upon me like a hypnic jerk
When I was just about settled
And when it counts you recoil
With a cryptic word and leave a love belittled

Oh what a cold and common old way to go
I was feeding on the need for you to know me
Devastated at the rate you fell below me

What wasted unconditional love
On somebody
Who doesn’t believe in the stuff

Oh, well

13 thoughts on “Song of the Day #231: ‘Oh Well (unreleased version)’ – Fiona Apple

  1. Dana says:

    Another good song, but, as Amy suggested earlier, it’s a bit hard to take a lot of Apple in heavy doses, particuarly when she ramps up the intensity and angst to this level. It’s just not necessarily the kind of song I want to hear repeatedly because it’s not the kind of mood I want to be in when I listen to music.

  2. Clay says:

    I can sort of see that, because I am sometimes in the mood to hear different kinds of music. And if I’m in the mood for happy-happy I wouldn’t reach for this. But I’m also often in the mood for more somber or passionate music.

    I subscribe to Roger Ebert’s philosophy… the only depressing movie (or song) is one that’s poorly made. Excellence is exhilarating.

  3. Dana says:

    I agree with Ebert’s philosophy, and believe it extends to music as well. But the thing is, as much as I can appreciate great films like Schindler’s List, for example, I generally have little desire to see them more than once. The subject matter is too dark or the journey too laborious to go on repeatedly.

    The same is true for music. While the time committment is admittedly less (4 minutes vs. 2-3 hours, or perhaps an hour for a whole album), I still don’t generally return repeatedly to songs or artists that are too heavy. It’s not really that I gravitate toward “happy” or even “poppy,” it’s just that, to me, there is only so much somber or dark that one can take.

    In a way, I can see what may have been the record studio’s frustration with Fiona. After 2 wonderful, but emotionally intense albums, the question arises–how much more can we take? If, for example, Spielberg gave us nothing but Schindler or Saving Private Ryan intesnity films, would it really be so unreasonable for the studio (on behalf of the public to whom they sell) to ask for a change-up–something just a BIT lighter and less slit your wrists-esque? I think Spielberg is ultimately a better and more interesting creator/director for making a Catch Me if You Can along with Schindler’s List.

    And I think, ultimately, as great as Fiona is as a songwriter, she will not endure as well as others if she refuses to pull out of the darkness. Elliott Smith comes to mind as an example of someone who could at times be dark and intense, but also showed a lighter side. Costello is a master at this as well.

    So, yes, I do not find a song like this “depressing” in that it is a very good song. But I doubt I will feel much compunction about returning for a second listen, let alone a 5th, 10th, or 100th.

  4. Clay says:

    I don’t know if Elliott Smith is a great example… his stuff was major-league depressing, and he wound up killing himself!

    I’m the opposite when it comes to both movies and music. I love to wallow in the misery. I’ve seen Schindler’s List a dozen times and I can listen to the most depressing music on repeat for hours.

    Not to get into psychoanalysis mode, but perhaps because I’m very emotionally reserved personally I like to seek a release through other people’s angst.

  5. Dana says:

    Well, perhaps I don’t know Smith’s catalogue as extensively, but I have heard songs of his that were lighter in musical tone, if not lyrics. Fiona usually gives you the double whammie of depressing lyrics and very heavy musical tone–all minor keys–no release–although the ones I like better from her do give you a brighter toned chorus (even if the lyrics stay dark).

    As for your personal taste and desire to wallow in the dark and depressing–I guess that’s why you have your movies and music and I have mine:)

  6. Amy says:

    Well, I’m coming to this discussion late and haven’t even listened to the song yet, but I have to say I agree wholeheartedly with Dana’s comment (of 10:21). I can appreciate dark films, songs, episodes of television, but I certainly don’t gravitate towards seeing them or listening to them again. Intense is one thing, but dark and disturbing is something else entirely. And Clay, I have an appointment with a very good therapist for you. I’m not sure about all of this wallowing in misery. Lighten up, fella. Next week you must feature “Shiny Happy People,” “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” “Walking on Sunshine,” and the collected works of Jack Johnson.

  7. Clay says:

    Maybe I’m overstating my desire for misery, though I do enjoy a good cathartic movie/show/album.

    I think mostly I love good craft… and if that’s Schindler’s List, it’s every bit as appealing to me as Raising Arizona. Ditto Fiona Apple or The Beach Boys. I certainly don’t want to listen to poorly done misery, in any format.

  8. Amy says:

    But you’d just as soon sit down to Schindler’s List as Raising Arizona or Moonstruck? That I just don’t get. And it’s not that I find Schindler’s List depressing, for I do agree with the Siskel theory. It’s just that I don’t want to revisit that brilliance regardless of how much I was moved by it the first time.

  9. Clay says:

    Maybe not just as soon. But I definitely enjoy revisiting those films.

  10. Dana says:

    For me, there ain’t nothing better than some poorly done misery:)

  11. Amy says:

    By the way, I don’t mean to suggest that I don’t value the song or film that is so well-executed that its emotional power can cause someone to put his head on a table and weep. Far from it. Those films, at least, are often the ones that stay with me the longest. Two of my favorite films this year were The Wrestler and Rachel Getting Married, and I found both emotionally devastating.

    Art is one of the most important means we have to express any of our deeply felt emotions, and certainly the horror and sadness that are part of life warrant that expression as much as any other emotion. And for the non-artists among us, it is essential to have that forum to help to work through those feelings. The person who is unable to write a poem or a song, or to paint on a canvas, but just as capable as the artist to feel lost, lonely, afraid, hurt, needs that poem to read, song to hear, painting to ponder, in order to fully experience not only the emotions themselves – but the realization that those emotions are shared ones. When I sit in a theater of strangers, many of us crying at the images on the screen, that is an undeniably moving experience. Sure, it’s more fun when we’re all laughing together.

    But the potential of the art work to collectively affect an audience is the same – regardless of whether the artist is going for humor (which may just be more difficult to achieve) or pathos. I did listen to the song just now and I agree that she experiences it, as much as she sings it. Which is what Frank Sinatra did, and Adam Duritz does. Those singers certainly do manage to connect with the lyrics of a song, and by proxy, the person listening to the song, in a way less gifted singers might not.

    Now that I think about it, I never do tire of hearing that Elizabeth wasn’t on the train, so maybe I am a glutton for musical punishment, too 🙂

  12. Clay says:

    Yeah, what she said… 🙂

  13. Dana says:

    I agree with all that Amy has said, but, again, the more poorly done crappy piece of aritistic misery, the better!:)

    But seriously, I do want to again emphasize that, ultimately, it is the great artist who can move between moods, styles, etc and I hope that, at some point, Fiona lightens it up a little bit so as to diversify the experience and perhaps expand her fan base.

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