Sublime Silliness

We hear her next album will be accompanied by several CDs' worth of footnotes.

OK, so the full title is: 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.

I briefly debated typing the entire 90-word title of Fiona Apple's sophomore

album, though in the end, as you can see, I decided that Apple deserved

to have her pretensions swallowed whole. More than any other Lilith Fair

type, she's forged an appealingly obnoxious and grandiose public persona.

I dug her MTV Music Video Awards acceptance speech — not for its

deep insight into the performer/audience relationship but for Fiona's

stubborn insistence that she be heard.

In any case, When the Pawn Hits ... is so good that the next album

could have a 900-word title and I wouldn't even scratch my goatee. Sure,

the title is bunkum, as are most of Apple's lyrics. But practically every

song here is fitted with some sort of hook or clever twist that makes it

compelling. There's the fuzzed-out guitar riff that emphasizes the fact

that she's not afraid to make a "Mistake" (RealAudio

excerpt) or the oboe figure toward the end of "Fast As You Can"

that suddenly steers the song in an entirely new direction.

Most of the poesy turns out to be PJ Harvey–lite — you know,

full of unfulfilled desire, vengeful harridans and the like. It's not too

far a crawl from Harvey's "I'll make you lick my injuries" ("Rid of Me")

to "You wanna lick my wounds" from Apple's "Limp" (RealAudio

excerpt). OK, so Fiona doesn't dig too deep. But she compensates

for this shallowness with plenty of hooks that make this album far more

varied than the homogenous wispiness of Tidal.

Even more impressive, there's often a corresponding detail in the lyrics

that pokes fun at her propensity for transforming the piano parlor into

a therapist's office. In "Get Gone," she advises an ex to move on with

his life yet finds herself "sitting singing again, singing again, etc."

while insistent piano glissandos reinforce her irritation. And you roll

your eyes at a line like "the dove of hope began its downward slope"

until you realize that it's just a "Paper Bag" (RealAudio

excerpt). And soon you find yourself soaking in the song's lush

Bacharach-like melody as Fiona mourns a hopeless conquest.

Such, well, silly qualities make Apple's songs more accessible than those

of, say, PJ Harvey. And it's important for an artist like Apple to continue

to win over new fans because if Tidal was her "For You" and

When the Pawn Hits ... her "Prince," then chances are good that

Apple's next album will be her "Dirty Mind" — i.e., her first

masterpiece. What this supposed future masterpiece might sound like, I

can't say, though I hope it's more abstract musically. Every song on

When the Pawn Hits ... is too beholden to the pianistics of the

sensitive singer/songwriter. So some unhinging would be nice. For now,

though, it's filled with more promise than the new one from Paula Cole. Or the one from Me'Shell NdegeOcello. Or Janice Robinson. Or ...