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Best Album

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

—10  

 

Released: 1999

1) On the Bound  2) To Your Love  3) Limp  4) Love Ridden  5) Paper Bag  6) A Mistake  7) Fast As You Can  8) The Way Things Are  9) Get Gone  10) I Know

 

Three years passed between Fiona Apple’s multi-platinum and critically acclaimed debut album “Tidal” to releasing its follow-up.  Three years.  That is an extraordinary amount of time to lapse between albums considering the success of her debut.  Normally record companies push a new artist to release anything (no matter how rushed or how poor) to ride the wave of popularity for as far as it will go, but Apple resisted.  Instead she worked on her follow-up album slowly (letting it gradually develop), in the meantime adjusting to fame as only Apple could.  I’m referring of course to her now infamous “Go With Yourself Sermon” at the acceptance podium after her winning the Best New Artist Award from MTV in 1997.  For those of you who didn’t hear it, it wasn’t really as bad as it is made out to be, but it is probably the one thing she will always be remembered for.  There were many others episodes too, including her very public breakup with magician David Blaine (the guy that buried himself alive for seven days with no food or water, all while being filmed. When he emerged, he was twenty-four pounds lighter…ooo, spooky!) and her eventual relationship with director Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, and Magnolia).  This newfound love scared many of her fans into thinking that her sophomore album would reflect her newfound happiness, but that wasn’t the case at all.      

 

In fact, virtually every song on “When the Pawn…” deals with a breakup in one way or another.  Yes, I abbreviated the title, and yes, the album’s actual title is the longest in the history of recorded music.  A gimmick?  A marketing ploy?  Of course, but really I think it was a “fuck you” to her critics--all those critics who concentrated on her appearance or her life or even her speech, instead of her music.  The ironic thing is that the album’s title got more notice than the music it labeled.  And that is a shame.  Honestly, because the one thing Fiona Apple should be remembered for is this album.  It is, without a doubt, one of the best albums of the 1990s and lyrically, one of the best albums I own.

 

The musical jump from “Tidal” to “When the Pawn…” is remarkable.  On her debut, she played piano and it was compelling in a sparse kind of way, with an overwhelming sadness seeping through most every track.  Here, while still piano based, the melodies are far more complicated and the music is much more varied.  Her singing too has taken on a fuller tone and the backing instrumentation (particularly the percussion) is tremendous.  But the single most separating element from her first record to her second is clearly Apple’s lyrics.  On “When the Pawn…” she wrote enough one-liners to rival some of my musical heroes, and created the breakup album for the ages.        

 

On The Bound” begins the record in a similar fashion as “Sleep to Dream” opened her debut: driving, angry, and desperate.  Here though, the background musicians play a much larger role, as does Jon Brion’s production.  The coda in particular is a sonic mess, with all its strange beeps and whistles, but it is intriguing and impressive.  The lyrics deal with Apple knowing that the relationship is doomed, but not knowing how to leave.  Key Lyric: “Nothing I do don’t do no thing but bring me more to do.”  Nothing turns to no thing—that is as simple as it is genius.

 

To Your Love” is next and seems to be linked with “A Mistake” as being the two tracks on the album that probably aren’t about a guy/girl love relationship.  My interpretation of these tunes is Apple again striking out against her critics.  With “To Your Love,” the opening line, “Here’s another speech you wish I’d swallow…” seems to be in reference to her notorious MTV ordeal, and the song deals with her resisting the media’s critique of her image.  Likewise, “A Mistake” infers that she keeps making decisions that others would label slip-ups, but that she herself is actually comfortable forming.  Neither of these tunes are the best the album has to offer, but they are each catchy and by no means filler.  What makes them noticeable is that each tune could be interpreted to be about a relationship as well, thus adding another element to their status.

 

The rest of the record is a cry of annoyance, of rage, of hurt and of helplessness all in one.  Limp” clearly evokes the annoyance and rage, but the trick that makes Apple’s songs so striking is the underlining helplessness behind even her most forceful tracks.  And “Limp” is unquestionably forceful.  Using a gentle piano as an inviting intro, the song soon turns into a pulsating screech of emotion complete with fills from an old proto-synthesizer called a chamberlain, and a thirty-second drum solo for mood.  Fiona bluntly predicts that it won’t be long until the focus of her vicious lament will be “lying limp in your own hand.”  BURN.  Key Lyric: “You fondle my trigger, then you blame my gun.”  Puns using sexual innuendo rule!

 

Love Ridden” is anything but forceful.  This elegant tear-jerking ballad is nearest in style to her previous album, but betters most every song heard there.  Simple, with poignant orchestration, Apple sounds absolutely crushed, but again, her voice manages to somehow sound determined as well.  Beautiful and moving, “Love Ridden” deals with the other side of a breakup, when the anger subsides and the acceptance begins.  Key Lyric:  “No, not baby anymore, if I need you I’ll just use your simple name…only kisses on the cheek from now on, and in a little while we’ll only have to wave.”

 

Just when you are about to drown in your tears of lost love, Apple throws three of her most atypical tunes at you, starting with the whimsical “Paper Bag.”  This is the most melodic song on the album with its clever chord changes and horn section.  Sounding like an old-style cabaret tune, it is one of the most unique songs you’ll hear and a true testament to Fiona’s fully developed songwriting.  She annunciates like an overworked Jazz singer and clearly believes each and every lyric, some of which harp back to her anorexic days: “Hunger hurts, but starving works when it costs too much to love.”  The instrumental coda is McCartneyish and this is truly an amazing tune.  Key Lyric: “I know I’m a mess he don’t want to clean up.”

 

The album’s first single, “Fast As You Can” is another unique track.  Matt Chamberlain’s percussion riff expertly kicks off the tune, and Apple raps overtop, somehow managing not to stumble over her own tongue in warning her man to get away from her as fast as he can.  The song is fun, crazy, and clearly catchy.  Again, the spastic instrumental ending is a highlight and the overall mood, while still dark, is lightened just a bit.  Key Lyric: “I’m tired of whys choking on whys; I just need a little because, because.”  Love that clever word play!  The third and final uncharacteristic track follows, titled “The Way Things Are.”  Apple pens her first real rock song here and credits the slide guitar played by Tom Biller for transforming the entire song.  It again deals with moving past a breakup, but is overtly catchy and easily could have been a hit single had it been released as it is the most ear pleasing and accessible tune on the album.  Key Lyric: “How can I fight when we’re on the same side?” 

 

Get Gone” begins sounding like a more typical Apple ballad from her “Tidal” period:  quiet, introspective, and calming.  However, the elegance and tiptoeing get squashed into fury, with her piano leading the charge.  The tune goes back and forth, changing moods like only a broken girl can: angry, sad, sorry, vengeful, indomitable.  The orchestrated background is letter perfect and this is the best-sung song of her short career.  The coda this time is a slow spiraling buildup until the music drops out and Apple’s voice is left to finish the frenzy alone.   You can’t really get more resonant than this.  Key Lyric: “It’s time the truth was out that he don’t give a shit about me.” 

 

The album closes with a brilliant ballad.  The lyrics are her best yet written and tell the story of a girl who knows that her love is cheating, hence the title, “I Know.”  Cleverly, the “I know” also refers to Apple knowing that he loves her…knowing that they can’t ever be together…knowing that she could have stopped the whole situation but didn’t.  And she does it all with her usual style of vulnerability, sarcasm, and grace.  The lyrical talent displayed here almost makes you forget about the music, which hides so effortlessly in the background that the words and music can’t be separated.  All-Star session man Jim Keltner handles the understated drumming beautifully and the tender orchestration punctuates Apple’s voice, while her piano is her solace.  Key Lyric: A tie with “So be it I’m your crowbar,” and “For the time being, I’m being patient.”  Again…clever word play rules!  But literally the entire last stanza is breathtaking, with the last lines:   

 

And if it gets too late, for me to wait
For you to find you love me, and tell me so
It's okay, you don't need to say it

 

And she doesn’t.  She never finishes the line. You are left waiting for a voice that is not heard. It is obvious that the last line should be: "It's okay, you don't need to say it cause I know”—which would complete the rhyme, but there is nothing.  I love this album!

 

I know, I know…this is the longest review on the site, but I really do like this album that much.  Fiona finished her follow-up to “When the Pawn…” in 2003 and called it “Extraordinary Machine,” but SONY has so far refused to release it claiming that it is not commercial enough.  Neither side is backing down, so it might be years before we hear if “When the Pawn…” is the beginning of a dynasty, or a soon to be forgotten, lost gem. 

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