Where does Fiona Apple end and the world begin? After her 1996 debut,
Tidal, went supersize, she suddenly found herself center ring of the Media Circus. It was easy to believe the young self-obsessed singer/songwriter was slightly crazy, and that music was her only protection in a world that constantly gets under her skin. Either by accident or by design, Apple embodies one of the great conceits of romanticism-that genius and neurosis have a lot in common. In other words, really smart and sensitive people have a way of looking nuts.
With When the Pawn..., the precocious young woman has turned her painful confusion into a juggernaut of soaring pop music. Operating under the admirable bumper-sticker premise that what's personal is also political, she's taken the most intimate details of her interior life and delicately turned them into fresh statements about politics, celebrity, and sexuality. To do so, Apple has become especially astute at poetry and melody. Lyrically, she carries off some elaborate double and triple entendres, literary puns that would be right at home in the portfolios of Bob Dylan or Rickie Lee Jones. On "Limp," for example, she ridicules a would-be lover, scolds the wayward press, and describes the ironies of gender inequity with a single brilliant innuendo: "You fondle my trigger, then you blame my gun," followed by the vaguely threatening prediction that "it won't be long until you're lying limp in your own hands." The album is thick with similar epiphanies, whether on an introspective ballad like "I Know," a confessional rocker like "Mistake," or a cabaret show tune like "Paper Bag."
In keeping with her reputation as a highly conflicted woman who easily juggles mutually exclusive truths (remember the infamous self-exploitation controversy of her vampy "Criminal" video?), Apple's greatest strength can also be her biggest weakness. Her precocious maturity as an artist is balanced by a lot of Ally
McBeal-grade angst related to finding the right mate. It's subject matter that would quickly get tiresome but for Apple's cleverness and her formidable power to emote like a seasoned pro. Her hyperpersonal composition and performance allow her to wear her heart-and several other organs-on her sleeve like no one else can.
To be sure, Apple is working overtime to connect to an urban, bohemian past she didn't personally experience except through her mother's record collection. The self-conscious affectations that are meant to quote the Beatles, especially Jon Brion's Abbey Road-obsessed production and instrumentation, would be annoying with a lesser artist. But they're built on a solid foundation: Apple's strikingly powerful alto, her melancholy piano, and her relentless desire to write the truth even if it means cussing herself right off the radio. If she averts self-destruction and grows beyond her first-person obsessions, Apple may well end up in many other mothers' record collections.