When The Pawn...
  Fiona Apple
(Clean Slate/Epic)
Wall of Sound    Nov 8' 99

by Gary Graff

Genre: Rock, Pop 
File Under: Call me when you finish the title 
Rating: 83

The title of Fiona Apple's long-awaited second album logs in at an unwieldy 90 words; it's a poem she composed to boost her resolve after reading an unflattering magazine piece about herself. The implication is that Apple has quite a bit to say, and on When the Pawn , she says it bravely, boldly, with unswerving pointedness and poetic elegance.

Her debut, 1996's triple-platinum Tidal, established Apple as an artist able to delve into the ghosts of her life (a broken home, being raped when she was 12) without pining self-pity, and When the Pawn refines that aim. "It's true/ I do imbue my blue unto myself," she confesses in the opening track, "On the Bound," one of several songs in which she shoulders the blame for failed relationships, romantic and otherwise. She's not self-righteous about it, either; "Please forgive me for my distance/ The pain is evident in my existence," she apologizes in "To Your Love," a rumba-styled piece that seamlessly weaves toughness and vulnerability. And amidst the smoky, saloon-tune intimacy of "Love Ridden," Apple offers a chilling and mournful depiction of how two lovers devolve from kissing on the lips to the cheek to the point where "we'll only have to wave." 

There can be beauty in pain, of course, and When the Pawn replaces Tidal's in-your-face bite with a collection of loose, airy but still-meaty musical arrangements that nicely serve the conversational stream-of-consciousness of Apple's lyrics. Give credit here to producer John Brion, who employs just enough instruments to serve the songs, and Matt Chamberlain, whose loop-laden percussion accents the dynamics in the compositions. "On the Bound" rides a dramatic lope and techy undertones until a swell of strings takes the number into torchier territory.

"Paper Bag" simultaneously bounces and swings, while Brion's guitar spices the melancholia of "The Way Things Are." Chamberlain's swirls of sound drive the frenetic burn of "Fast as You Can" and the groovier gait of "Limp," and they generate a foreboding atmosphere on "A Mistake." "Get Gone" and "I Know," two more torch numbers, close the album the latter resonating long after the song finishes as Apple assures us "I do know what's good for me/ And I'm not benefiting/ Instead and I'm sitting, singing again " and we're the ones who are certainly benefiting from that.