Don’t get me wrong: Unadulterated pop moments like the one we’re in are good things. But the seemingly nonstop blur of young acts swamping the charts and MTV’s Total Request Live does make one occasionally yearn for performers with — how to put it delicately? — longevity and substance. Phrased another way, it makes one crave an act destined to be a Behind the Music rather than a Where Are They Now?, someone whose life, music, and personal drama merit an entire hour rather than four minutes.
Lou Bega, for instance, feels like a WATN?, but Robbie Williams, with his pub pop and reported recent breakdown, is a Behind the Music waiting to happen. Fiona Apple, on the other hand, could have gone either way when she first slunk onto the scene. Released at the dawn of the new Teen Age, her ‘96 debut, Tidal, smacked of quality, just as Apple herself, with her bugged-out eyes and small frame, smacked of a neurotic interplanetary visitor. But it was unclear whether she was an old-fashioned ”career artist,” as she seemed to believe, or merely an overachiever in her high school’s creative-writing class.
One’s inclined to think the latter with the proudly overreaching title of album number two. Take a deep breath and repeat after us: When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks Like a King What He Knows Throws the Blows When He Goes to the Fight and He’ll Win the Whole Thing ‘Fore He Enters the Ring There’s No Body to Batter When Your Mind Is Your Might So When You Go Solo, You Hold Your Own Hand and Remember That Depth Is the Greatest of Heights and If You Know Where You Stand, Then You Know Where to Land and If You Fall It Won’t Matter, Cuz You’ll Know That You’re Right. The world’s most overwritten fortune-cookie message, that title is bound to make you laugh, groan, or both. But guess what? The joke’s on us. As cringe-inducing as the word artist can be when applied to pop singers, When the Pawn… makes it clear that the term can now be applied to Apple.
Like any proper tortured artist, Apple hasn’t gained much in psychic confidence following the success of Tidal. On When the Pawn…, Apple presents herself as a mental shambles, and she’s more than happy to tell us about it. The album feels like an extended (and strangely endearing) monologue to a lover about her shortcomings: ”I’m gonna f – - it up again/I’m gonna do another detour/Unpave my path” (”A Mistake”); ”Please forgive me for my distance/ The pain is evident in my existence” (”To Your Love”); ”I’m a mess he don’t wanna clean up” (”Paper Bag”). And those are merely the choruses. ”Fast as You Can” refers to the speed at which her beau should run from her. Anger and spite crop up in language and graphic images (”Limp”), but so does tenderness: The after-hours-supper-club ballad ”Love Ridden” laments the end of an affair in bittersweet detail, like the moment when you shift from calling that special someone ”baby” to their first name, or when a kiss on the lips travels to the cheek. ”In a little while,” she sings, ”we’ll only have to wave.”
In the wrong hands — say, those of Glen Ballard on Alanis Morissette’s last album — the combination of music and self-analysis can be painful, a musical root canal. Thanks to sharp producer Jon Brion (Rufus Wainwright, Macy Gray), When the Pawn… avoids overstatement. Apple’s piano trundles, the strings loom, the beats clop; everything, including her throaty voice, has alluring dark circles under it. With their hints of cabaret, tango, and doomed chanteuses, the melodies slither rather than pummel you. The very good but imperfect Tidal was hampered by musical and lyrical floridness. When the Pawn… is more consistent, rhythmic, and forceful. From the hell’s-carousel feel of ”On the Bound” to the sputtery single ”Fast as You Can,” which dares radio to stick with its shifting time signatures, Apple and Brion take chances that continually pay off.
Let’s hope the fluttery bits of Jewel and Tori Amos that filter into Apple’s singing don’t overtake her, but it’s hard to imagine they will. Pawn… is the work of an original, albeit a developing one. It doesn’t feel like Apple’s ultimate statement as much as it does the second of many – which, in the current climate, is genuinely inspiring. Memo to VH1: Start tracking down those high school classmates, shrinks, and relatives. A
When the Pawn…