We gave it an A
The title of Fiona Apple’s second album is, well, 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 her first release, ”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. Apple and Brion take chances that continually pay off.
”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.