• Old 'Stache

Hunger Hurts: Digesting When the Pawn …

written by: on March 22, 2012

Regardless of whatever pop inclinations she hinted at with 1996’s Tidal (or even more so, the subsequent “Criminal” video), that vicious little sprite Fiona Apple seemed more likely destined for the easy-listening adult-alternative sect, unfairly placed among a confederation of musicians she really was nothing like lyrically or tonally. Her music, sparse and jazz-inflected as it was, was just too damning to ignore.

In what would become a theme among such female-driven singer-songwriters as Aimee Mann and Kanye West (Wait … ), a little Jon Brion goes a long, long way. While he was a multi-instrumentalist on Tidal, Brion took producer duty for Apple’s second record, When the Pawn (1999) and never looked back. While easy to dismiss as attention-grabbing fodder because of its then-world record-holding album title—which contains more than 400 characters—When the Pawn … was the first record of Apple coming into herself as a vibrant pop musician, not just the pre-natal Norah Jones. Brion adds ticks all across the tracks, punctuating Apple’s well-developed lounge-singer jazz act with a vital infusion of weird—a wobbly whistle organ in “On The Bound,” or the Ocean’s 11-style atmospherics and scraggly guitars on “A Mistake.” Like he would with West, Brion is not so much a producer who alters the recipe of an artist, but one who knows where to put the garnish to make that recipe look better.

On its face, When the Pawn … doesn’t have many tonal differences from Tidal. In fact, none of the songs on her sophomore record really measure up to “Criminal”‘s jarring pain-for-pleasure impulse. However, each song, from the percussive “Fast As You Can” to the chopped-up “To Your Love” finds Apple coming more into her own as a singer and as a complex, layered lyricist. Her masochist bent was never more apparent than on Tidal or more absent on her third record, Extraordinary Machine, but When the Pawn … fixes the right mixture of self-hate, self-pity and vicious snarl. “That pain is manifest in my resistance to your love,” doesn’t necessarily reveal anything new about Apple that wasn’t on “Criminal” or “Sleep to Dream,” but the feat that she doesn’t seem to be repeating herself is an impressive one, considering that she is doing just that.

“Paper Bag” makes manifest the strange dichotomy Apple tackled and lived with on her early discography. The song is all mid-1970s radio-pop breeziness. A section of horns and a plaintive acoustic guitar do their best to buoy Apple, whose verse gets darker and more self-deprecating with each successive verse. The narrator mistakes a paper bag for a dove, a dove whose sole purpose would be to give the narrator hope for a brighter tomorrow with the love that she so apparently hungers for. And the chorus, which unravels more and more as it goes along, is one of those reminders that, regardless of however powerful Apple may pretend to be, her inner monologue always subtly betrays her. On the opener, she growls, “You’re all I need,” but sneaks in an important last line: “But maybe some faith would do me good.”

It is exactly this lack of self-confidence that makes Apple such a strange goddess of the now-bursting at the seams femme-empowerment pop scene.

Her outward persona since her torrid emergence has been one of unapproachability, a tiny femme fatale of a singer. Yet each word on When the Pawn … dives into a different system by which she is tripping herself up. First single “Fast As You Can” outlines this the clearest with the most overt Brion references on the record. “Baby run, free yourself of me,” isn’t exactly the stuff of Florence Welch or Adele, but it speaks to a different independence altogether.

Most people, be they singer-songwriters or audience members, go through periods of their self-confidence leaving them. All too often, pro-independence pop music skirts this period, instead focusing on singers who seem immune to the problem in the hopes that those bastions of stand-up-for-yourself power can will the audience member into changing. Or, as is the case with people outside this sphere, singers with these issues wander into a kind of co-dependency with their romantic subject, placing the importance of their existence in another person. The magic of Apple, especially on When the Pawn … , is that she eschews both routes and instead focuses on documenting and cataloguing her conflicted and troubling feelings in the hope that expressing that emotion will bring forth some change. As she once said, her songs are “little pep talks” to herself. Perhaps it is indicative of her particular brand of genius that barely anybody else replicates this formula, but more than anything, When the Pawn … is a fantastic companion to the downtrodden, a 40-minute reminder that while she may put on a brave face, Apple really is just as fucked up as the rest of us.

Fiona Apple – When the Pawn… tracklist:

  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”