In 1999, I had a summer job. I had a winter job too. At school, I had a meal plan and loans to defer financial concerns to the next decade plus. At home, I had very few living expenses, so I put most of my earnings into CDs. Had those CDs been certificates of deposit, I might be a wealthy man now. Alas, my investments were in Blur’s lush melancholy, Kula Shaker’s global experimentation, and Ben Folds Five’s nerdy bravado. Interest was accrued in credibility among my music geek friends.
Because of this relative financial windfall, my music collection grew more in 1999 than it ever had, and for the first time, I kept a year-end list of my favorite new albums. When the year began, I never would have guessed that it would end with Fiona Apple’s November release at the top of said list.
I wish I could say Fiona Apple didn’t fit with the artists I listened to in the ’90s because most of her songs were piano-driven or because of her showtunes-inspired flare for the dramatic. Nah. She was different because she’s a girl.
Music by women wasn’t aggressively marketed to me as a teenage boy in upstate New York and I wasn’t progressive enough to seek it out. Sure, I’d seen the “Criminal” video from Apple’s 1996 debut a thousand times on late-night MTV and, years later, broke down and bought a used copy of “Tidal”. But when my friends were caught up in Blur vs. Oasis debates and lamenting The Smashing Pumpkins trading guitars for techno, I wasn’t about to step in with a defense of Tori Amos or Björk and why their music was at least as culturally relevant as that of anyone else in this sentence.
But Fiona was different.
She was cute. And only two years older than me. That mattered in 1999. Of course, so was Natalie Imbruglia, and I wasn’t dropping $14 on her new album.
She wrote her own music and played an instrument. That was essential. I had no time for The Supremes in 1999. Then again, Lucinda Williams wrote her own songs and played a mean guitar, and I wasn’t listening to her in ’99 either.
Fiona spoke to me. Twenty years later, I still haven’t looked up the definitions of derring-do, rigadoon, or desideratum, all of which she drops in “To Your Love”, but I remain mystified by her vocabulary and her willingness to eschew the prosaic language of the pop canon for such esoterica. The way her voice flutters when she sings “and fooooor a little while” on “Fast As You Can” still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
“Tidal” was good: a showcase for a young genius with a piano and an appreciation for classical music and a hint of a subversive side. “When the Pawn” is a monumental step forward. Jon Brion’s production is rich and warm and perfectly suited to Fiona’s ambition.
From the bass-heavy intro of “On the Bound”, it’s clear that Fiona has grown up and is going to take a stab at a more mature statement. By the end of “Limp”, the stunning, third track, it’s clear that she’s succeeded. She’s a woman scorned and she’s not taking any more shit. “Paper Bag” is lounge jazz with a Rodgers and Hammerstein cadence. “Fast As You Can” uses “Criminal” as a starting point, but ratchets up the intensity, highlighting the virtuoso singer, songwriter, arranger, pianist, and performer Fiona has become.
Even if the other nine tracks were throwaways, I’d’ve gotten my $14 worth and then some just for “Get Gone”. It starts with piano and voice, as soft and slow as the scene before the first murder in a horror flick. Someone’s lurking, and at the one-minute mark, the payoff: “So put away that meat you’re selling me”. This is the first of several sharpened arrows slung at a disgraced former lover. Each bridge from verse to chorus hits just as hard. The second is instrumental, Apple’s refusal to speak as damning as the scathing verse it replaces. The third time around puts the nail in the accused’s coffin. “Fucking go”.
“When the Pawn” is a work of staggering genius. Fiona Apple can write like Nabokov and play like Rachmaninov. Her music is literate and sophisticated. Also, the best line on the album is “fucking go”.
That’s my 88th-favorite album.