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Like most any self-respecting, intellectually correct music critic, I was primed to glide into snide mode on the subject of Fiona Apple's When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks Like a King... (Epic), and not just because the full title is 90 words long. In the course of publicizing her 1996 debut, Tidal, the waifish, doe-eyed teenage daughter of show-biz parents had let it slip that she was raped at the age of 11. She then proceeded to strip to her panties on her breakthrough video, a self-flagellating cocktease of a ditty titled "Criminal," all the while claiming Maya Angelou as her mentor. As precious as she was disingenuous, Apple seemed genuine only in her neuroticism.
That may still be the case, but the singer has received an effective new drug for her condition: fame. Just as the stimulant Ritalin eases the accelerator for some hyperactive kids, the fishbowl distortions and moot melodramas of celebrity appear to have provided a sharper, broader looking glass for Apple's continuing self-obsession. Perhaps, having gotten everyone's attention, she can finally settle into her own skin and become a credible pop artist.
Whatever new dynamic is at work here, When the Pawn... is mostly purged of the puerile diary scribblings ("The Child Is Gone," "Sullen Girl") that made Tidal so cringe-inducing. In their stead is a deeper array of tragi-romantic narratives devoid of apologies or self-pity. Where the Apple of Tidal played the tortured artiste with such crass calculation that you rooted for her tormentors, the Apple of Pawn both rues and revels in the fact that she's a perverse pain in the ass. "I wouldn't know what to do with another chance/If you gave it to me," she warbles on "The Way Things Are," concluding, "I couldn't take the embrace of a real romance/It'd race right through me." This after telling the paramour of "To Your Love," "Don't be down when my demeanor tends to disappoint/It's hard enough even trying to be civil to myself."
Over a typically Applesque Seventies piano-rock groove, the lickety-split lead single, "Fast As You Can," shows signs of post-Lilith icon fatigue, with its rapid-fire refrain, "Fast as you can, baby scratch me out, free yourself." Then she adds, with a bite, "My pretty mouth will frame the phrases that will/Disprove your faith in man." Moreover, "A Mistake" gleefully announces, "I'm gonna waste my time/Cuz I'm full as a tick.../I'm gonna fuck it up again."
Sorting and tagging her petty cruelties gives Apple a clearer vision of when she has been wronged, unleashing an anger that's a damn sight more riveting than the mewling petulance of Tidal. It's in the nuances of her fury that Apple's growth as a singer is most apparent. You can almost smell the bile spat out in the vocals of "Get Gone," but there's a surgical precision to her emotional emasculation of a manipulative mate on "Limp." "You wanna make me sick/You wanna lick my wounds/Dooon't you baby?" Apple tauntingly coos. "You fondle my trigger then you blame my gun."
That last line is merely the most blatant of many lyrics that could apply equally to an ex-lover or a culture addicted to celebrity. Her updated bio may be almost too banal for words: Ambitious young performer finds fame's not all it's cracked up to be! But, earlier than most, Apple has conflated the wisdom and vulnerability of her position, not only by acknowledging her complicity in the game but by maintaining that she wants to keep playing it on her own terms. Thus Pawn's lead track, "On the Bound," begins by heralding her post-fame adulthood--"All my life is on me now, hail the pages turning"--but closes with the wry lament, "Baby say that it's all gonna be alright/I believe that it isn't."
The execution of Pawn reflects the nascent maturity of its conception. Abetted by producer Jon Brion, Apple ranges with ease from the "Criminal"-style classic-pop jostle of "On the Bound" and the cabaret whimsy of "Paper Bag" to the folk balladry of "I Know"--all with jigsaw-puzzle cohesion. Her vocal mannerisms still sound a trifle secondhand--the curled blue notes of Bonnie Raitt, the arch precision of Laurie Anderson, the shimmery alto crescendos and muttered denouements of Joan Armatrading. But the source material is first-rate and its interpretation exhibits more emotional nuance and pliability than, say, Mariah's diva-in-heat treatments, Tori's fulsome theatricality, or the eminently pleasant tonal flatlands traversed by Sheryl Crow and Alanis. Apple's voice, like her mind, is an encouraging work in progress. And When the Pawn... is the year's most surprising triumph.