Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Poet From The Title Down: Fiona Apple’s When The Pawn . . .

The Good: Excellent lyrics, Great somber mood, Good instrumentals
The Bad: Apple's voice is seldom an instrument on this album.
The Basics: Sad and powerful, strong and moving, Fiona Apple's second album holds up, especially through rough times.

Fiona Apple is a fairly extraordinary musical artist and poet, the latter fact she emphasizes with an obscenely long album title that most people reduce down to When The Pawn . . . The truth is, I could not relate the entire title because the cover of the album is predominantly red and the title is in almost the same shade, making many of the words difficult to read in normal lighting.

Beyond an impressive album title that is a poem, Fiona Apple's second album is a poetic work that flows from piece to piece wonderfully. When The Pawn . . . is an angsty album that seems to focus most on the yearning of the narrator/singer for love plagued by indecision. From the opening chords of "On The Bound" to the last notes of "I Know," this is an album that expresses the essential desires to be heard and loved with the complicated insecurities of self-doubt and doubt in one's partner.

Apple has created a work that is easy to see why it never hit the mainstream; it's a complicated album. This music is not simply "I love you, baby," or "My heart aches because you're going" garbage and it's not simply pop music with a guitar and/or a piano. This is "I love you, but I am pushing myself away from you because I have other issues" music with piano, woodwinds and voice. It's not pop, it's not jazz, it's something . . . well, alternative.

Take one of Apple's sentiments from "To Your Love:" "Please forgive me for my distance / The shame is manifest in my resistance / To your love." Here is a voice saying "love does not solve everything" as she has other issues that interfere with her desire and ability to love. Take that Top 40! But that is the brilliance of Fiona Apple; she is not bound by the conventions of what is "supposed" to be sung about. In some ways, it's a refreshing listen; she expresses the complexities of human relationships without judging them. It's not "I'm horrible for feeling this way," it's "this is how I feel."

The songs on When The Pawn . . . are a decent mix of longing ("To Your Love" "Paper Bag"), empowered - or vengeful, depending on the perspective ("Limp"), and loss ("Love Ridden"). And Fiona Apple has an amazing voice to sing these songs. She is a professional who has some very evident training. Her voice is incredible and the album is not overproduced, though fans of her debut album Tidal (reviewed here!) are likely to note that it is a bit more produced than her earlier work.

In fact, despite the growth in the background music between her debut and this album, the real difference between Tidal and When The Pawn . . . is that Fiona Apple's voice is seldom used like a musical instrument on this album. On Tidal, the dominant sound is Apple's voice, resonating lyrics through the listener. Here her voice is big and her range is impressive, but the album as a whole lacks the essential dependence on her voice the way a song like, "Never Is A Promise" on Tidal did. On that song, Apple's voice is the musical instrument above all others. When The Pawn . . . has no such songs.

The pacing of this album is also somewhat more upbeat than her debut, even if the lyrics are not. For example, the drums on "A Mistake" move the song along with more speed than most of the songs on Apple's first album. Appropriately, "Fast As You Can" goes at a speed that sounds unlike anything else Apple has presented before now. And it works. It's a pleasure to hear this album because of the complexity and diversity of it. The truth is, there are no artists on the radio right now that sound like Fiona Apple and that is a loss to music fans.

When The Pawn . . . is likely to be enjoyed by anyone who likes female artists, great lyrics and an impressive range of musical styles and vocal range. It's the perfect album for one who is experiencing the complex emotions around a weird breakup. It is not likely to be enjoyed by someone who likes the simplicity of Top 40 music and lyrics that state obvious, simplified emotions. This is a work with lyrics that delve into the contradictions within us when we are in relationships or not.

The best track is the complex and sad "Love Ridden," the least strong track (this is a pretty strong album) is probably the confused and convoluted "Fast As You Can."

For other powerful female vocalists, be sure to check out my reviews of:
300 Days At Sea - Heather Nova
Flying Home - Ella Fitzgerald
50 Greatest Hits - Reba McEntire


For other music reviews, please be sure to check out my Music Review Index Page for a complete listing!

© 2012, 2008, 2005 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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