WHEN THE PAWN (Columbia)
UNCUT · Mar 2000
by Nigel Williamsonr
|(FIVE STARS OUT OF FIVE - a classic)
Tour de force second album from precocious singer-songwriter
Fiona Apple's debut album, Tidal, was released in 1996 at a time when every major label was searching for its own Alanis Morissette - and Sony executives were convinced that in the precocious and disturbed 18-year-old New Yorker they had found theirs. It was easy to see why, "I’m white, have long hair parted in the middle and get angry sometimes," Apple herself said of the comparisons. "But open the door at any high school and you're going to find 20 of those people."
So what made young Fi different from her classmates? Well for a start she had been in therapy since 11, was raped at 12, and sang songs that sounded like she had lived an entire lifetime while still in her teens. She seemed to fit perfectly the Nineties template of strange and troubled young women laying naked their emotions, from Bjork and PJ Harvey to Tori Amos and, of course. Alanis herself, "I’ve done wrong and I want to suffer for my sins," she wailed on ‘Criminal’ on that first album. "Help me out of this mess, I’m a stranger to myself," she cried on ‘The Child Is Gone’. In 'Sullen Girl’, she contemplated an Ophelia-like watery suicide. An everyday story of teenage psychotic dementia.
Yet there was a deeper poetic sensibility and all-round intelligence about the album that suggested Apple could turn out to be the most significant of all her distressed ilk. Even at her most pained she sounded strong rather than vulnerable. Asked about her influences, instead of name-checking a bunch of dumb-assed rock stars, she cited the writer, Maya Angelou.
The remarkable When The Pawn more than confirms the promise. She’s done a bit of growing up since Tidal. The tone is just as lacerating, and her problems - alienation, loss of faith, emotional dysfunction and self-loathing - haven’t gone away. The word "shame" figures in two of the albums first three sings. But the teenage angst has been replaced by a deeper well of emotion.
There were times on Tidal where you wanted to tell her to grow up (a reaction which the older Morissette and Amos can still provoke in abundance). Here there’s not a single such moment.
If comparisons have to be made, Apple now sounds more like an accessible version of Ani DiFranco with the audacious melodic flair of the great Laura Nyro and a dazzling risk-taking quality about her phrasing that is worthy of a young Nina Simone.
The darkly obsessive 'On The Bound' perfectly balances programmed beats and cinematic strings as Apple chants repeatedly "You’re all I need," Then comes the killer: "And maybe some faith would do me good." 'To Your Love' has more than a touch of PJ Harvey, a warped, alienated jazz-blues on which she pleads "Please forgive me for my distance." 'Limp' starts with her picking out a delicate piano motif before she juxtaposes a starkly different mood, spitting out the furious accusation: "You wanna make me sick/You wanna lick my wounds/Don’t you, baby?" 'Love Ridden’ has a gorgeous melody drenched in Nyro-style melancholy, the jazzy 'Paper Bag' is the sort of thing DiFranco might come up with on a good day, and 'Fast As You Can’ and ‘Get Gone' share a theme of escaping from destructive relationships. 'The Way Things Are' spells out her dilemma: "I wouldn’t know what to do with another chance if you gave it to me/I couldn’t take the embrace of a real romance/It’d race right through me."
Out of the blue at the end comes 'I Know’, a tender love song with a beguiling melody, a heart-felt soulful vocal and a contented resolution. A pointer to a happier future or merely a temporary respite from the emotional maelstrom? We shall have to wait until the third album to find out. In the meantime, When The Pawn is a bold, brave and bruised album of searing intensity and disarming honesty - part poetry, part therapy and wholly brilliant.
While most every new female singer-songwriter gets compared to Joni Mitchell, Apple alone deserved the attention. She never succumbs to the pretentiousness of Tori Amos, the preciousness of Sarah McLachlan, the traditionalism of Sheryl Crow or the affectation of Alanis Morissette.