Fiona Apple's unreleased third album is all over the Web now, liberated by copyright nonbelievers for whom no safe is strong enough. Some posting the music to their blogs are conflicted: They satisfy their craving for Apple's music, knowing she'll see not one penny, but they justify their deeds as the actions of freedom fighters. After all, they will say, she's being held captive by Sony Music, which has insisted that Apple never even turned in a third album and then summarily shelved these wondrous recordings made with producer Jon Brion between 2003 and '04. Just how it came to spin on the Internet remains a mystery -- it leaked out song by song, then came all at once in a tidal wave of tracks -- as does Sony's decision to keep it prisoner on a shelf somewhere.
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.