Fiona Apple, “When The Pawn…”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #63 – released November 9, 1999)

Track listing: On The Bound / To Your Love / Limp / Love Ridden / Paper Bag / A Mistake / Fast As You Can / The Way Things Are / Get Gone / I Know

The full album title: “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.”


Readers may recall how I nearly pulled my car over in astonishment the first time I heard Portishead’s “Sour Times”; Fiona Apple’s “Shadowboxer” incited a similar reaction on first listen, only in this case I was not driving (perhaps thankfully so for other motorists), but at home when the video came on MTV. In late ’96, the channel wasn’t playing anything remotely like it: a bluesy, spacious piano ballad (although to reduce it to just that would significantly lessen its toughness, its grit), sung by a frickin’ teenager in a low, agile, commanding growl/wail far, far beyond her 18 years. Despite this disparity between her age and presence, nothing about her screamed novelty or even precocious—it’s one of the few times I’ve ever immediately thought, “My god, what an original, genuine talent.”

Her debut album Tidal proved that “Shadowboxer” was no fluke: many other songs on it nearly matched that single in hooks, lyrics and beguiling atmosphere, and a few, like “Sleep To Dream” and “Criminal” arguably exceeded it. Months later, the latter became a top 40 hit, aided by a suitably creepy and controversial video that led to a Best New Artist win at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards. Apple, then just shy of 20, delivered a shockingly candid acceptance speech for the ages (at one point infamously saying, “This world is bullshit!”) Some claimed it destroyed her career, limiting her commercial prospects (indeed, she never graced the pop singles charts again); others, however, recognized in her both a ballsy iconoclast and a weird genius at an exact moment when there were no likely candidates to fill those voids (you were expecting Alanis? Third-Eye Blind?)

Tidal was nearly strong enough to make the cut for this project, but Apple’s second album was such a big leap forward that it almost dwarfed its predecessor. First and foremost, consider the 90-word album title (commonly shortened to When The Pawn… for sanity’s sake), an attention-grabbing ploy of a sort not even a musician as utterly stubborn as Joni Mitchell or Stephin Merritt has ever attempted. Next, cue the first single, “Fast As You Can”: note how it sounds absolutely nothing like “Criminal” or “Shadowboxer”, skittering by at a rapid, disjointed pace, the piano more indebted to then-trendy UK-based Drum and Bass electronica than singer/songwriter stuff. Then, it radically changes to a more classic, rock ballad tempo midway through, only to return to the previous clatter a minute later. As with “Shadowboxer”, I first heard the song through its video, although this one baffled rather than seduced.

Still, when I finally heard WTP… in full three months later, it resonated beautifully, despite on the whole feeling nearly as intricate and ambitious as that lead single. “On The Bound” opens with the mechanical whirr of a drum machine and other unusual, antiquated, Mellotron-like electronics falling into place, a signature of its producer, Jon Brion (who also helmed Tidal and Aimee Mann’s first two albums.)  It soon resolves these disparate parts into a two-chord, piano-pounding vamp, with Apple’s jazzy phrasing on the verses solidifying into a manifesto on the chorus: the words “You’re all I need,” repeated over and over, followed by the punchline, “and maybe some faith would do me good.” It then concludes with an instrumental outro nearly two minutes long, as if Apple and Brion have absolutely no interest in getting this damn thing on the radio, instead opting to explore expansive, shifting tones and song structures.

The remainder of WTP…’s first half, however, is far more concise. After the minor-key “To Your Love” (which resembles PJ Harvey attempting to write a Beatles tune but having it turn out like a femme-fatale cabaret number instead), the album’s first great song arrives. So much happens so quickly in “Limp” that you can barely believe it’s only three-and-a-half minutes long. Beginning with an ascending, five-note piano-and-vibes hook and a weird, squishy percussive noise burbling quietly underneath, Apple softly launches into the first verse (“You wanna make me sick / you wanna lick my wounds / Don’t you, baby?”) Then, Matt Chamberlin’s propulsive drums kick in at 0:35 and a mere twelve seconds later, the chorus arrives at full volume, Apple rapidly spitting out a lyrical kiss-off with such fierce, head-spinning precision (and brevity) you barely have a second to catch your breath. After the second verse and chorus, there’s a nearly minute-long drum solo, entirely eschewing the song’s melody but not any of its intensity or momentum. When it’s over, the quiet intro of the song returns, only to directly surge into one last, brief, sinus-clearing chorus before abruptly ending, not wasting a single note.

“Love Ridden”, which follows, is all the more shocking for sporting a far more traditional arrangement of just piano, voice and strings, a throwback to Tidal’s more austere moments. Still, Apple does so much with those simple elements—the piano and strings complement each other but also expertly weave in and out of the song’s frame, while her elastic vocals give the oft-dreaded term “melisma” (think Whitney or Mariah) a good name. “Paper Bag”, which follows, could have almost come from Paul McCartney’s pen (the one he used for “Martha, My Dear”, in particular) but sports a decidedly wickeder edge. “I thought / he was / a man / but he / was just / a lit- / tle boy,” Apple jauntily vamps right before the second chorus, and the whole song swings and sighs like the most perfect pop; it also comes off as a little too eccentric and miniaturist to ever imagine anyone covering it on American Idol or The Voice.

That last observation also applies to “A Mistake”, which is just as defiant (“Why can’t I make a mistake, / I wanna make a mistake,”) but also venomous with a hint of self-deprecation (“Cuz I’m FULL as a TICK / and I’m scratching at the surface.”) It’s also more contemporary-sounding than anything preceding it, squirming with fuzztone guitars and backed by a slinky beat that’s almost P-Funk. Nearly five minutes in length, the song has plenty of room for Apple and Brion to stretch out and breathe again, her wordlessly sighing along with the guitars and him deploying his usual wall-of-sound production without feeling overstuffed.

At this point, “Fast As You Can” appears, playing just a little more smoothly in this context. After it dribbles to a chaotic, tambourine-shaken close, “The Way Things Are” then gradually fades in, restoring equilibrium via a deep, bluesy yet ridiculously catchy melody (almost Todd Rundgren-like!) and a glorious, key-changing chorus (“So keep on calling me names, / keep on, keep on.”) As usual, Apple’s vocal acrobatics serve the song and melody (and not the other way around); I can’t help but think had it come out a few years earlier or perhaps five years later (and not at the height of teen pop and nu-metal), it could have been a radio hit.

Same thing goes for “Get Gone”, whose elegance in the piano-led, triangle-tinged intro could be Bacharach/David before it shifts into something closer to musical theater. However, as Apple glides towards the incensed, wordy but fully registerable chorus, rhyming “benefiting” with “sitting” and furiously concluding, “It’s time the truth was out / that he don’t give a / shit about me,” delivering each word gutturally but intelligibly, she doesn’t resemble anyone else but herself: a woman containing multitudes that’s just as often the protagonist of her songs as she is her own worst enemy (as she noted so directly back in “Paper Bag”, “Oh, he knows I’m a mess that he don’t wanna clean up.”)

WTP… concludes with “I Know”, another piano-and-strings ballad of the sort that Nina Simone could’ve performed in an earlier era (just picture her singing the quirky first line, “So be it, I’m your crowbar.”) As with most Apple songs, it alternately heaves and sighs, transforming a raw bundle of neuroses into a lament brimming with metaphor (“And you can use my skin / to bury your secrets in,”) and frank vulnerability, singing the song’s title as both a matter-of-fact and as a hard truth that’s a struggle to get out.

Since then, Apple has only put out two more albums. Extraordinary Machine (2005) exists in both a Brion-produced demo version that was first leaked online and a revised, completed version with Dr. Dre/Eminem-producer Mike Elizondo that favors a more modern-sounding approach. Neither take is entirely satisfying, although the title track (preserved in its Brion version for the final album) is a delightfully demented score for an alternate-world vintage Disney cartoon short. Fortunately, The Idler Wheel… (2012) (another long title, but only 23 words this time!) was a real advance—as idiosyncratic and cathartic as WTP… but radically stripped-down (at the time, I deemed it “confessional swing music for people desperately trying to escape their dance partners.”)  Even if Apple only releases two more records in the next fifteen years, you can bet at the very least, they’ll be worth hearing and dissecting.

Up next: And behind this door…


“Paper Bag”:

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