Fiona Apple’s second album When The Pawn… sits quite comfortably amongst my favourite dozen albums of all time and is an album that I genuinely return to on pretty much a weekly basis. Although When The Pawn… went platinum in the US, it didn’t attain the same commercial success of her triple platinum debut album Tidal. Part of this may have been due to the over the top backlash against Apple at the time, which seemingly grew out of negative reactions to the Mark Romanek directed video for her song “Criminal” in 1997 and continued on with attacks on her for being too thin, saying too much, saying too little and being too pretentious.
These accusations of pretentiousness weren’t really diminished when the album’s full title of 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 was announced. That said, this ninety word poem was written as a personal response to a series of critical letters about her published in a 1997 issue of Spin magazine and in retrospect, it’s also an excellent piece of poetry.
These criticisms come across as incredibly mean spirited. By the age of 18, Apple had written and composed all of the tracks on her debut album Tidal and was then on the receiving end of a series of personal attacks up to the release of When The Pawn… when she was just 22. This background may go some way to explaining not only the maturity Fiona Apple had developed as a songwriter by this time, but also the vulnerability and anger that permeates the album. The album was written and released while Fiona Apple was in a relationship with director Paul Thomas Anderson who was able to create three stunning music videos for the album’s singles “Fast As You Can”, “Limp” and “Paper Bag” which were sadly under seen at the time (his video for her non-album track “Across The Universe” is also exceptional).
The album kicks off with “On The Bound”, a track which wonderfully uses a piano to channel Portishead with Apple singing of a failed or failing relationship. The album is a perfect entry to the album with its mix of anger (“hell don’t know my fury”), confusion (“I don’t know what I’m doing, don’t know should I/Change my mind, I can’t decide, there’s too many/Variations to consider”), longing (“Baby, lay your head on my lap one more time/Tell me you belong to me)” and vulnerability (“Baby say that it’s all gonna be alright/I believe that it isn’t”).
This is followed by “To Your Love” a driving piano track opening with one of the best lines on the album: “Here’s another speech you wish I’d swallow/Another cue for you to fold your ears/Another train of thought too hard to follow”. Whether aimed at a lover or her critics, it is a withering line and one that immediately grabs the listener’s attention. “To Your Love” tracks a failing relationship and is filled with self-loathing, but such eloquent self-loathing: “I would’ve warned you, but really, what’s the point?/Caution could but rarely ever helps/Don’t be down when my demeanour tends to disappoint/It’s hard enough even trying to be civil to myself”. It’s also possibly the only song to use the word “desideratum”, although I’m still not sure if that’s a good thing or not.
“Limp” is an angry song. Such an angry song that at the 2:03 mark of its music video director P.T. Anderson felt the need to stick the word “angry” in the middle of the screen. “Limp” is also probably the best written song on the album. Each verse starts with a measured and ominous piano intro, before the chorus picks up pace and strings, with the song hitting a crescendo of frenetic percussion in the middle, before finally returning to the chorus. The opening line of the song has Apple sneering “You wanna make me sick/You wanna lick my wounds/Don’t you, baby?” and this rage is maintained throughout. “Limp” is essentially a diatribe against a lover, but the lyrics are so good it’s difficult not to just transcribe them all here. The opening line of the chorus “When I think of it, my fingers turn to fists” is a brilliantly succinct expression of anger and frustration. Although amongst this anger there is also considerable wit, with lines such as “You fondle my trigger, then you blame my gun” and “It wont be long till you’ll be/Lying limp in your own hand” showing just how good a songwriter Fiona Apple had become.
“Love Ridden” is a beautiful, but simply structured piece with Apple’s soulful vocals accompanied by piano and strings. The song is an exploration of loss and change following the break-up of two lovers. Written from the perspective of the person that ended the relationship, it is heavy with sadness and longing: “And I wanna crawl in with you/But I cry instead/I want your warm, but it will only make/Me colder when it’s over”. The refrain of “Only kisses on the cheek from now on” is able to succinctly capture this changing dynamic in a disengaged way, with Apple’s delivery of the lines betraying that detachment.
Musically “Paper Bag” is unique on the album, a bright and breezy almost cabaret style number which opens with a drum loop and ends with horns. Lyrically the song is fascinating, the first two verses reflect on a time when Fiona Apple saw a paper bag in the sky and thought it was a dove, before delving into self doubt and infatuation (“Hunger hurts, and I want him so bad, oh it kills/’Cause I know I’m a mess he don’t wanna clean up”) with someone not worthy of that affection (“I thought he was a man/But he was just a little boy”).
The next two tracks, “A Mistake” and “Fast As You Can” musically up the tempo. “A Mistake” features a guitar and other background effects seemingly at war with the underlying piano track. The unsettling effect of this contrast perfectly suits what is essentially an examination of knowingly self-destructive behaviour (“I’m gonna make a mistake/I’m gonna do it on purpose/I’m gonna waste my time”). “Fast As You Can” lives up to its title with Apple’s rapid fire vocals matching the frenzied pace of the piano and percussion. A point brilliantly underlined in P.T. Anderson’s music video for the song which intentionally keeps Apple’s lip synching regularly out of step with the music. The song is a witty warning to a lover not to stick around (“You say you don’t spook easy/You won’t go, but I know/And I pray that you will/Fast as you can, baby run/Free yourself of me/Fast as you can”) and features probably my favourite line on the album: “My pretty mouth will frame the phrases that will/Disprove your faith in man”.
“The Way Things Are” and “Get Gone” could be easily reversed in the running order, with “The Way Things Are” reflecting on being better off after the end of a bad relationship and “Get Gone” placed at the point of realisation that a bad relationship needs to end. Both songs perfectly capture these different moods. There is an overarching sense of resignation and caution throughout “The Way Things Are” (“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/I’m much better off the way things are/Much much better if, better by far, by far”), whereas “Get Gone” is simply filled with anger (“How can I deal with this, if he won’t get with this/Am I gonna heal from this; he won’t admit to it/Nothing to figure out; I gotta get him out/It’s time the truth was out that he don’t give a/Shit about me”).
The album finishes on a somewhat positive note with “I Know”. Over a haunting melody, the lyrics focus on a new relationship, although admittedly one that comes out of breaking up an old one (“So be it, I’m your crowbar/If that’s what I am so far/Until you get out of this mess”), but the song lets the album end on a note of honesty and hope (“Baby I can’t help you out, while she’s still around/So for the time being, I’m being patient”), even if that hope is quite probably misguided.
When The Pawn… doesn’t contain a weak or wasted moment. From the opening track “On The Bound”, Fiona Apple creates a mood of vulnerability and anger which she continues to build on over the next eight tracks, before ending with the slightest hint of hope with “I Know”. In a twenty year career Fiona Apple has only released four albums and although Tidal, Extraordinary Machine and The Idler Wheel… all have great moments, When The Pawn… is the only one that feels fully realised. That said, When The Pawn… is such a masterfully written and structured album that these ten songs alone put most careers to shame.