When Fiona Apple burst onto the scene a few years ago with the biting and cynical Tidal she appeared to be merely a slightly less toxic version of Canada’s Alanis Morissette. Her lyrics were outwardly cocky and angry while revealing a bruised and perhaps abused psyche. Her music made allusions to jazz and blues, but in the end sounded more like a carnival hurdy-gurdy with its odd time structures and sparse arrangements. Tidal was intriguing in its honesty and licentiousness, but it didn’t seem to indicate that Apple had the potential to offer a more substantial work.
However, Apple’s second album When the Pawn… (I won’t enter into the debate about the pretentious paragraph-long official title for the record) proves that she is not just an angry young woman with an interesting voice but one of the few major talents working in popular music today.
This is not meant to imply that Apple has ceased being angry and cynical. On When the Pawn… however Apple’s cynicism sounds less like the wails of a petulant child and more like the observations of a woman that has seen a bit too much of the world. Virtually every song returns to the same themes of betrayal, lost love, and desire that were explored on Tidal, but this time Apple seems in control, rather than being controlled.
Musically and vocally Apple has matured significantly. The jazz allusions in her earlier work have metamorphosed into genuine jazz phrasing in her vocals and her piano work. Apple’s voice has become a dark and sinister instrument that can convey pain, anger, and humor in a single lyric. Vocalists like Celine Dion and Mariah Carey who specialize in the ear-splitting shriek could learn a lot from Apple’s more subdued but far more interesting vocal style.
Identifying a stand-out track on Pawn is difficult because the album works best as a cohesive unit. In fact it is often difficult to determine when one track ends and another begins. However, “Limp”, “Love Ridden” and “Fast As You Can” are particularly strong tracks featuring caustic Apple vocals with some of her most biting and amusing lyrics.
With When the Pawn… Apple has proven that she is more than the child-like vixen featured in her “Criminal” video and on her first record. She has defeated the odds to create a sophomore effort that is reflective of her earlier work but transcends those earlier limitations to create a new standard for pensive singer-songwriters in the new millennium.