Facing a Broken Mirror
Nov 8 '99

by Christopher John Farley

From Fiona Apple, an album of fractured beauty

Like shards from a shattered mirror, Fiona Apple's new album, When The Pawn Hits... (Clean Slate/Epic), glitters with reflective surfaces and sharp edges.  The singer-songwriter's debut album, Tidal (1996), was a work of ingenue ingenuity, delicately designed, bright with innocence, laden with the prospect of future accomplishment.  This follow-up CD is a promise kept:  the 22-year-old's new compositions, angry but articulate, veering between gentle balladry and art-pop, don't need the crutch of precociousness to establish their worth.  These are songs that stand on their own.  

The full title of the album is a poem, written in frustration by Apple after seeing a story about herself in Spin Magazine that she deemed unfair.  the complete 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 had/ 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."  It's not an epic poem, but it's an epic title; the CD's name has already drawn its share of critical barbs.  "The title came from being made fun of," sighs Apple, "and then of course it becomes a thing I'm being made fun of for."


In the songs on the album, Apple is far better at hitting her targets.  When the Pawn Hits... has been artfully produced by Jon Brion, who helps give the CD a carefully ornate sound that's intimate yet rich.  Lyrically, Apple is full of fury:  at her past, at her lovers, at herself.  In "To Your Love" she sings, "it's hard enough even trying to be civil to myself."  In "Limp" she mocks, "It won't be long till you'll be/ Lying limp in your own hands."  She knows there are things about her that put people she loves at a distance.  As she watches them recede, she is wistful, but triumphant too, because she has remained true to her nature.  "Only kisses on the cheek from now on," she sings to a former lover in "Love Ridden."  "And in a little while, we'll only have to wave."

There's a sadness at the core of this CD that trails every beat like a heart murmur.  At age 12, Apple says, she was raped by a stranger.  Images from that attack creep across her songs, shadows angling along a wall.  In "Fast As You Can," she sings, "I fight him always and still."  In real life, Apple says, she's happily dating filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights).  Violated once, she says romance races "right through" her.  So she writes songs that investigate the opposite of romance, and she does so with an almost arithmetic sorrow, as per past subtracts from the happiness of her present.  Her chronic melancholy, however, does not overwhelm the rapture of her melodies.  Her mirror is broken, but the reflection is still beautiful.