Saturday, October 14, 2006

CD Review: Fiona Apple - When The Pawn... - A Look Back

As if bursting from the CD jewel case, the musical and sonic marvel and melancholy of Fiona Apple’s second release spills over to the official 90-word poem-turned 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

Cue the go-with-yourself idiosyncratic and independent spirit variously but resiliently shadowboxing with reality and relationships, while other forces try to shout down self-doubt. But there's a little more to it here, more dimensionality than was found on Apple's 1996 debut album, Tidal, which, while featuring some compelling songs such as "Criminal" and "Sleep To Dream" -- couched in beyond-her-years sultry vocals -- was marked by some over-reaching lyrical preciousness. All part and parcel to being wide-eyed and 18, but all the more remarkable for it.

Tidal, then, constituted the advent of a promising career for the prodigious, piano-pounding talent. The quantum artistic leaps and bounds displayed only a few years later on 1999's When The Pawn were enormous and largely unexpected, marking a cohesive gamut-sprinting breadth and depth and a sophistication perfectly complemented with the elegant and multi-layered production of studio wiz Jon Brion (Aimee Mann, Rufus Wainwright, David Byrne, the Eels). With a drop in comparative sales, however, When the Pawn made for a commercial disappointment; the sophomore jinx held in that regard. But, to quote Apple from last year's long-awaited superb straggler Extraordinary Machine: "Oh Well." I suspect the early fair-weather fickle fans, unable to handle a rewarding challenge, were not much missed.

Thematically, When The Pawn, as an absolutely stunning album of assorted and sundry tales of love formed and torn asunder, emerged from the one-note sullen-girl sulk-fests to embrace a fuller emotional spectrum while sustaining the visceral confessional facets of Tidal. In the tempo-tossed "Fast as You Can" (niftily exemplifying "To Your Love's" word-picture "chugging along to the song that belongs to the shifting of gears"), Apple avers that “I’ll drown in the wonders and the was,” assuring us that not only can the introspective titular (about 59 words in) Depths indeed be the Greatest of Heights, this is one artist unafraid to strap on wings and ascend to the sun -- an Icarian image suggested by "Fast's" allusion: "And for a little while more / I'll soar the / uneven wind, contain and blame / The sterile land."

Displaying wit even in her woe, an incisive and often paradoxical Apple survives and lives to tell the tales with poetic, passionate intensity in quirkily unconventional and evocative language. From "To Your Love": "My derring-do allows me to dance the rigadoon / Around you / But by the time I'm close to you, I lose / My desideratum and now you..."

This  kind of recklessness also sees Apple's finely-honed songwriting craftsmanship somehow -- it's a subtle circumvention at play here -- eluding for the most part any pervading insinuation of forced affectation or mope-and-cope shoe-gazing surrender. Apple won't be pinned down and pegged: She can implore that the object of her disaffection not "be down when my demeanor seems to disappoint / It's hard enough even to be civil to myself" ("To Your Love"). But a few songs later, she's almost gleefully acquired "a taste for the well-made mistake," as she rallies and moves on in a refreshingly cavalier and carefree fashion: "I'm gonna fuck it up again / I'm gonna do another detour / Unpave my path."

But no matter how much you may want to cover your tracks, that new path might be as circular as it is scenic, leading you back to square one. In When the Pawn's powerfully propulsive first cut, "On The Bound," the more metaphoric first cut runs deepest in an unflinching tone that seemingly makes up Apple's default tenor: "It's true, I do imbue my blue unto myself / I make it bitter" -- and by the last line we've hit rock bottom as an apparent defeatist defines herself abjectly, wearily and warily intoning, "Baby say that it's all gonna be alright / I believe that it isn't."

Sometimes, nevertheless, the bitter is sweet, if short lived, and this sense of contrariness and pessimism sounds nothing like the blithe pop spirit of "Paper Bag," with its infectious, lilting melody set to a shuffle rhythm, and topped with wistful but ultimately dashed hopes for a new love "whose reality I knew, was a hopeless to be had." With "Paper Bag's" bleak outlook hemmed and hawed to perpetual impasse -- in "The Way Things Are" Apple bemoans that "I wouldn't know what to do with another chance / If you gave it to me" -- it doesn't take too long for self-fulfilling prophecies to profit not:

    But then the dove of hope began its downward slope
    And I believed for a moment that my chances
    Were approaching to be grabbed
    But as it came down near, so did a weary tear
    I thought it was a bird, but it was just a paper bag.
    Hunger hurts, and I want him so bad, oh it kills
    Cuz I know I'm a mess he don't wanna clean up
    I got to fold cuz these hands are too shaky to hold
    Hunger hurts, but starving works,
    When it costs too much to love.

Tough nut to crack, and this is only the emotive pendulum swing at mid-stroke. "All my life is on me now, hail the pages turning / And the future's on the bound, hell don't know my fury," Apple ferociously sings in "On the Bound." And you believe her when she warns, "My pretty mouth will frame the phrases that will / Disprove your faith in man" (Fast As You Can.)

But this woman scorned can take it to the limit — and we're not talking about merely being careless with a delicate man. In the scathing powerhouse "Get Gone," Apple sends the guy packing — no doubt he deserved it — but if she is the one left with cares and woes, her dignity's intact: "There's nothing left to grieve / Fuckin go- / Cuz I've done what I could for you, and I do know what's / Good for me..."

Good for her. Not so good for the miscreant in in "Limp." This little ditty of anti-mellow derision is not your mother’s school of confessional singer-songwriter sensitivity. It's a different kind of touchy-feelie emotion, more menacing and venomous, as Apple bristles: 

    ...And when I think of it, my fingers turn to fists
    I never did anything to you, man
    But no matter what I try
    You'll beat me with your bitter lies
    So call me crazy, hold me down
    Make me cry; get off now, baby-
    It won't be long till you'll be
    Lying limp in your own hand.

Ah, good times, good times...

On a much different note and slower-paced, the wondrously tender ballad "Love Ridden" engenders from separation and regret a resonance that lingers long after the last tender tendril of misgiving falls away: "I want your warm, but it will only make / Me colder when it's over." The expressive emotion in Apple's voice conveys as much heartbreak as the words, gradually recounting and revealing a scenario wherein "I stood too long in the way of the door / And now I'm giving up on you."

The last song on When The Pawn is the torchy and transcendent slow-crawl "I Know." "So be it, I'm your crowbar / If that's what I am so far," Apple begins, as if she personifies some Donne-like metaphysical conceit. But as this highly affecting song, and the album in general, is reflective of true-life troubles and transitions going on in Apple's life at the time, any artifice soon gives way to realities: "Baby — I can't help you out, while she's still around." Entreaties and expressions of solace and sorrow fill in the picture as Apple avows that "you can use my skin / To bury secrets in / And I will settle you down."

Little comfort, perhaps, as an absolutely heart-melting and poignant — almost ineffably melancholic — melodic twist at the end signals disenchantment writ large, writ loved and lost: "And if it gets too late, for me to wait / For you to find you love me, and tell me so / It's okay, don't need to say it."

Another one "gets gone," leaving Fiona Apple stronger and more stoic than ever, "sitting singing again, singing again..." And that can be extraordinary.

See also:
» CD Review: Cut Chemist - The Audience's Listening
» CD Review: Tom Petty, Highway Companion
» CD Review: Various Artists - The Pilgrim: A Celebration Of Kris Kristofferson



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