Fiona Apple may have been grouped in with Jewel, Paula Cole, and the rest of the female singer-songwriters who dominated the pop charts in 1996 and 1997, but she stood out from the pack by virtue of having grand ambitions and considerable musical sophistication. Even though her 1996 debut
Tidal occasionally was hampered by naivete, it was a remarkable record, showcasing a gifted young artist in the process of finding her voice. It may have been an impressive first record, but even so, the artistic leap between
Tidal and its long-awaited sequel, When the Pawn..., is startling.
It's evident from the album's 90-word title that not only have Fiona Apple's ambitions grown, so has her confidence. Few artists would open themselves up to the ridicule that comes along with having a full poem function as the title for a record. Such a move may seem like a stunt, but the title captures the fearless feeling of the record.
Apple doesn't break from the jazzy pop of Tidal on When the Pawn . .
., choosing instead to refine her sound and then expand its horizons. Although there are echoes of everything from Nina Simone to Aimee Mann, it's not easy to spot specific influences, since this is truly an individual work. As a songwriter, she balances her words and melodies skillfully, no longer sounding self-conscious as she crafts highly personal, slightly cryptic songs that never sound precious or insular due to their multi-layered musicality. With producer Jon Brion, she has created the ideal arrangements for these idiosyncratic songs, finding a sound that's simultaneously elegant and
As a result, When the Pawn . . . is immediately grabbing. But instead of fading upon further plays, it reveals more with each listen, whether it's a lyrical turn of phrase or an unexpected twist in the arrangement. Few records are able to provide revelations upon both the first and tenth listen, but
When the Pawn . . . does because Apple has made it as rich emotionally as it is musically. That's quite a feat for any album, but it's doubly impressive since it is only the second effort by a musician who is only 22 years old.
(For the record, the full title is: 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.) Sony.