Song of the Day #13: ‘I Know’ – Fiona Apple

Just about every one of my songs of the day so far have been about something other than the song. Sure, I like all of those songs, but I picked them as a way to talk about other issues.

This one, though, is all about the song.

If I were forced at gunpoint to rescue only ten songs from my collection and have the rest go up in flames, I would pull my hair out trying to decide on nine of them. But without a doubt one of the ten would be Fiona Apple’s ‘I Know.’

The final track on her wonderful When the Pawn (itself a sure desert island candidate), this torchy ballad is a sublime piece of songwriting and singing, full of lyrical and vocal surprises.

The narrator is a woman in love with a man who’s with another woman. It’s a deeply sad song about helplessness and denial, but a beautiful one.

Apple starts the song whispering with a weary ache…

So be it, I’m your crowbar
If that’s what I am so far
Until you get out of this mess
And I will pretend
That I don’t know of your sins
Until you are ready to confess
But all the time, all the time
I’ll know, I’ll know

She betrays her emotions in the next lines, hitting sweet, gorgeous high notes with this evocative image:

And you can use my skin
To bury secrets in
And I will settle you down

The rest of the verse hints at her insecurity.

And at my own suggestion,
I will ask no questions
While I do my thing in the background
But all the time, all the time
I’ll know, I’ll know

The music swells, drums rising in the mix, strings and piano pushing her toward a moment of defiance.

Baby, I can’t help you out while she’s still around

But the music settles back down, and so does Apple… stretching this next line out with a waver in her voice that borders on tears.

So for the time being, I’m being patient

She pleads her case… we start to get the feeling this isn’t going to end well.

And amidst this bitterness
If you’ll just consider this
Even if it don’t make sense all the time
Give it time

The next verse suggests that the man she loves is, inevitably, not ready to leave his current relationship. While she waits in the wings, he desperately tries for another chance. Apple’s voice betrays her uncertainty here.

And when the crowd becomes your burden
And you’ve early closed your curtain,
I’ll wait by the backstage door
While you try to find the lines to speak your mind
And pry it open, hoping for an encore

Her delivery of the final lines sends a shiver down my back (especially the “for you to find you love me” part). This is where the realization sets in that hers will remain an unrequited love, despite the optimism she tries to display.

And if it gets too late for me to wait
For you to find you love me, and tell me so
It’s ok, don’t need to say it…

She leaves the final “I know” unspoken, because she doesn’t really know anymore. Or maybe she does know, but what she knows is something she doesn’t want to admit.

I’ve run out of ways to express how wonderful I find this song. What’s interesting is that it doesn’t speak to me on a personal level, which sometimes lends an added power to a song. I don’t identify with her, but I feel for her. That’s due to the music and lyrics but mostly to Fiona Apple’s delivery.

I’ve noted that in just about every one of her songs there is some part (often many parts) where her singing can best be described as acting. She is a performer in every sense of the word, and just three albums into her career she is among my very favorite artists.

8 thoughts on “Song of the Day #13: ‘I Know’ – Fiona Apple

  1. Amy says:

    Just curious why someone would force you at gunpoint to make such a choice, and, if someone did, why you wouldn’t want to take more uplifting fare on this harrowing journey to the deserted island. As we’ve debated on an earlier thread on this very blog, I’m not as big a fan of the talented Fiona (the artist, not your daughter) as you are. Still, I can appreciate this song, and I particularly appreciate your ability to write about it. I’ve always had a more difficult time than you and Dana seem to have articulating what it is that I like (or don’t like) about music. So the line by line analysis – very cool.

  2. Clay says:

    Well, I’d certainly bring uplifting fare as well, but wouldn’t you want to have a nice mix? After 3 years of ‘Walking on Sunshine’ you might go a little nuts!

  3. Dana says:

    This song stinks!….Just kidding, of course. It’s wonderful, as is much of Fiona’s work. She is a passionate, original songwriter and artist, playing on a different playing field than most. While, as Amy is quick to point out, some of her songs (or at least her dramatic rendering of them) may not be everybody’s cup of tea, the same could be said about other great songwriters, whether it be Costello, Lennon, Joe Jackson, etc…But it is the ability of a great artist to compose a relatively straightforward song like this and then jump into a totally different style that separates the great from the good. I’m not sure if I would take her CD to my island because I dont’t think it would transport me enough away from the solitude of my situation:), but I understand the choice.

  4. Dana says:

    By the way, I wrote my comment before seeing Amy’s comment regarding uplifting island fare…but GMTA.

  5. Amy says:

    Woudn’t you already be “a little nuts” from having been forced, by gunpoint, to a deserted island. “Walking on Sunshine” sounds just about right.

  6. Alex says:

    I like this song much more after reading your comments than from just sitting at my computer and listening to it. Of course you know I introduced you to Fiona Apple (I still love every song on her first album) and our daughter’s name is certainly a tribute to her and Lyle Lovett’s wonderful song of the same name. That being said, her songs take too much work to listen to for me. The emotion and delivery that you love, I find cumbersome. I also tend to lose interest in many of her songs about half way through. You may all begin mocking my shockingly short attention span, but her songs quickly become background music to me – like CNN or a baseball game.

  7. Amy says:

    Far from mocking you, I am thrilled to have your eloquent and discerning commentary here 🙂 I can appreciate the background noise theory. Music that takes work often either gets shut off by me or tuned out. I honestly have never listened to Fiona Apple in long enough doses for her to enter either category, but if my husband were playing her incessantly, she would likely become background noise for me too 🙂

  8. Clay says:

    What a shockingly short attention span you have! I mock you! 🙂

    I can certainly appreciate that opinion… I feel the same way about lots of music that others swear by (Surfjan Stevens and Conor Oberst, to name a couple recent examples).

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