Quarantining The Past: Fiona Apple’s ‘When The Pawn…’

    When she first came on the scene, we talked a lot about age when we talked about Fiona Apple. On her 1996 debut, Tidal, her voice was surprisingly rich for a teenager, and her songwriting — her ability to convey all those right-there-on-the-surface pains — was impressive for someone so young. That talk dissipated only slightly on her follow up When the Pawn… (you know there’s 87 other words to the title at this point, and we’ll get to that) but not wholly. It was such a leap forward in songwriting and, more subtly, in its sonic textures, that we were still talking about how amazing it was a 22-year-old could craft such a deeply personal, but resonant, record.

    What we also talked about was how emotional these records were, how deep Apple could dig into herself and pull out what sounds like some damned painful stuff. We liked to think of her as unhinged, as brokenhearted and a even a little crazy. Seriously, if you search for Fiona Apple and “unhinged” or “crazy,” you’re going to get some hits. There’s even a Tumblr called “Fiona Apple Acting Crazy.” Nevermind that that’s more than a little dismissive, or that we rarely talk about male performers in these terms — most of the ways we think of her as strange come from either a) her getting lost in her music during a performance and physically reacting, b) getting nervous on television (or making some on-point but not earth-shattering observations about fame) or c) the level of personal detail and expression she puts into her music.

    While most talk about Apple’s strangeness is couched in praise, all this tortured-artist, crazy-woman mythology we place around her discounts the quality of a record like When the Pawn... more than it actually says anything about it. And Apple seems keenly aware of how we see her on her sophomore album. She’s aware of the faint mysogyny and condescension in the image of the crazy girl, and rather than respond to it, rather than try to convince us otherwise, When the Pawn... challenges us (or the romantic subject, “you”) to call her crazy. To dismiss what she’s done — Tidal, the MTV speech, etc. — as just overly dramatic rambling, as the oversharing of a person who can’t control their emotions. She does this not to lure us in, not to set a trap. That kind of predation links right to the crazy-girl image. Instead, she does it to hold up a mirror.

    It starts right away on the record, even before she howls directly to “call me crazy” on the seething third track, “Limp.” On opener “On the Bound,” Apple does seem like she’s looking for a post-crisis solution (“Maybe some faith will do me good,” she claims at one point) but it never really comes. She asks an ex-lover to “say that it’s all gonna be all right” even when she replies with “I believe that it isn’t.” She returns to that line about faith, repeating it as the song stretches out at the end, unraveling with skronky guitars and organs and layers of woodwinds and sci-fi blips. In other words, it gets chaotic, as if that faith didn’t come or isn’t enough. As if things are coming unraveled. Unhinged. 

    On the speedy churn of “To Your Love,” Apple asks “Am I your gal, or should I get out of town?” even as she’s documented well the ways in which connections between her and her subject are broken. In this song, Apple takes account for her own mistakes, though it then follows with the caustic “Limp,” and that culminates in the line “It won’t be long till you’ll be lying limp in your own hand.” It’s a song that sounds like the musical equivalent to tossing all of your belongings out onto the street, yelling from a second-floor window. But it’s not that. Instead, Apple is showing what’s expected here. “Call me crazy, hold me down, make me cry,” she sings, and then “get off now,  baby.” This isn’t a moment of passion, it’s Apple spitting on the notion of the knock-down, drag-0ut ending. For all the drama in her music, here she’s just saying let’s get it over with. 

    This is aimed at a lover she has clear disdain for, but it also nods to the audience. Apple is turning our expectations of her back on us. She got famous on the intense emotion of her songs, the emotions present in the first two tracks. But here she seems tired of the routine and everyone’s role in it: hers, his, ours. If she’s lashing out at anything here, strangely enough, it’s at the idea of lashing out. She titilates us with the sexual imagery, and with the emasculation of her subject, but it’s not about biting into him. It’s about us tasting the blood in our own mouths.

    She follows it with the basic piano and strings of “Love Ridden,” a plainspoken ballad following all the heavy percussion and rumble of the first three songs. It’s also a song that turns back to her, to how she “stood too long in the way of the door” that lead to the end of a relationship. She refers to a “baby” over and over again on this record — an image that certainly evokes taking care of something — but here she says, “no, not ‘baby’ anymore.” If the first few songs were about rooting in the wounds of heartbreak, this is about stitching them closed as best we can. About moving on. 

    The rest of the album struggles towards that catharsis, but mostly by looking at herself. She claims, on “Paper Bag” that she “went crazy again today” but that’s more a line of inarticulate frustration than a true judgment. What’s more telling is how, on “A Mistake” she claims she’s going to make one “on purpose.” On “Fast As You Can” she says she’ll “soon grow hungry for a fight.” She grows more and more antagonistic — both to herself and her subject — but it’s all about agency. Even the bad choices, of which there seem to be many, are still choices, and Apple makes a point of making that clear. 

    What we build up to, after the ire of “Limp,” is another emotional breaking point, the powerful “Get Gone.” Once you get here, you see that Apple has been gathering her strength, listing off her transgressions and the ways in which she’s been hurt, letting them fall away like scales from over the eyes, and now she’s ready for the fight she’s been threatening. Or rather, she’s finally trying to sever the ties she’s only been picking at to this point. “Fucking go,” she spits out towards the end of the song, “cause I’ve done what I could for you.” But more interesting is when it turns back to her. “And I do know what’s good for me but I’m not benefitting,” she sings, and then “I’m just sitting singing again.” The music, as it turns out, the thing we revel in for all its cathartic power, isn’t a comfort. It’s more like dimishing returns. All the ex-versus-ex fireworks we’ve been chomping at the bit over isn’t exciting for her at this point, it’s tiresome, it’s the same hard comedown all over again. And she’s at least trying to finally shuffle it all off.

    Which is what makes the final song “I Know” the most beautiful in her catalog. The title is affirmation, but it’s affirmation of the unknown. For all the anger of “Get Gone,” it’s mostly frustrating because it’s fruitless, and “I Know” acknowledges that this cycle will continue until it runs itself out. What has changed, though, is how much she’s willing to invest in it. It may go on, she may wait for things to change for the better, but in her sweetest singing voice on the record, with no sign of gruff rasp in her voice, she lets him know that if he finds out he loves her and has to “tell me so,” she concludes with “it’s ok, don’t need to say it.” 

    It’s a denial of affirmation, it lets us know that she expects no outcome from this cycle, just an ending. It also curiously leaves out the “you” in that last line, the subject finally fading from view. When the Pawn… certainly catalogs heartbreak and the spikes of emotion that go along with it, but to call it unhinged or Apple hyper-emotional is to miss that there is an intellect at play behind all of this, that this album, with all its myriad of layers (it’s far more expansive in sound than Tidal) is very much under control. Apple and producer Jon Brion created songs that push the limits of order without ever upsetting them. This isn’t just spewing out feeling in every direction, this is careful songwriting craft and execution. Apple walks us on a tour of the mending heart, not to excuse any behavior, but rather to make us recognize what we’re latching onto. That we want heartbreak to be dramatic, especially in song, that we want the gory details, the piss and vinegar. With Tidal we got introduced to Apple herself, from that close-up cover photo on down, but if you look at the cover of When the Pawn…, you see she’s in the background, smiling behind that verbose title, behind her words.

    That long title, too, challenges our expectations. No one writes album titles that long, so if it’s that long, it must lack self-control or restraint. Instead, it’s those words in the foreground that she has the most control over. They’re brash and raw-nerved and, like the music behind them, writ large. What they are not, though, is sloppy. These songs aren’t from a tortured artist or a crazy young woman. She’s not a mad genius. She’s just a person trying to tell honest stories. But the details we latch onto, the ways in which we romanticize both the hurt and the person hurting, maybe that’s where things get a little crazy.