Once more, with more feeling than is tolerable at times, Apple blurs that line between love and hate; she kisses till she draws blood, hugs till she breaks bones, caresses till it feels like a slap across the jaw. "I've been cryin' blue, but all I can see is red, red, red, red," she sings, the heartbroken girl who is, as always, out for vengeance. (Or perhaps she's a prophet, singing not to a lover who betrayed her but to the label that would do the same thing: "What you did to me made me see myself somethin' awful/A voice once stentorian is now again meek and muffled.") But this time Brion softens the blow, wrapping Apple and her piano in lush arrangements that turn these murder-of-love ballads into show tunes and carnival melodies and waltzes and torch songs and Disney-fied ditties. The words are dark, but the music's surprisingly light -- accessible, you might even call it, which is what Sony can't hear but the Free Fiona fanatics understand better than anyone.
The cynic believes perhaps Sony's pulling a Wilco and that it's just a way to get juice for the singer, who has no more chance at radio play than Kurt Weill. She would have never gotten this much publicity otherwise -- a shame, but the awful truth nonetheless. But the cynic also knows how the biz operates, marginalizing its brilliant eccentrics while making platinum out of tin-plated pop stars with borrowed hearts. So whatever this is -- finished gem or phony diamond, grassroots campaign or PR-machine product -- dismiss the attendant noise and focus only on what's here, which happens to be a miniature masterpiece.