Tangy Apple: The Anti-Gaga Bad Girl Returns

Evolution of a pop star

She has her favorites. “I am the baby of the family, it happens, so / Everybody cares and wears the sheep’s clothes while they chaperone,” she sang on the sly, twinkly Extraordinary Machine title track. The closest “Daredevil” on Wheel … has to a chorus is a multitracked Ms. Apple rumbling, “But don’t let me / Ru-in me / I may need a chap-er-one.” Each repeat of those last three syllables brings more relish. “Seek me out,” she taunts in the same song, “Look at, look at, look at me / I’m all the fishes in the sea.”

The effect is stark, and startling—petulance with a devastatingly adult punch.

Elsewhere, “Left Alone” is a moody free-jazz freak-out that wonders, “How can I ask anyone to love me / When all I do is beg to be left alone?” “Every Single Night” fills in the hypnagogic details the 19-year-old Fiona left out when she declared that she didn’t go to sleep to dream: “Every single night / I endure the flight / Of little wings of white-flamed / Butterflies in my brain.”

The Idle Wheel … might be called relentlessly experimental if it weren’t so alarmingly, alluringly immediate. Indeed, the woman who wrote “Criminal” in 45 minutes retains the knack for a pop hook, whatever her more protective fans may think. With its roiling repetition and tribal drums, album-closer “Hot Knife”—“I’m a hot knife / he’s a pat of butter …”—could easily be repurposed as a club hit; I thought immediately of Beyoncé’s “Girls.”

Fiona Apple may not be one, but a decade and a half into a bizarre career, it’s still her world.

editorial@observer.com