When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks Like a King...

So how about that album title? Read it as verse and it rhymes; read it as prose and it's Lewis Carroll after too much Hungarian food. Read it backward and it proves that Lee Harvey Oswald wrote Hamlet; read it out loud and realize that it doesn't make a damn bit of sense no matter how you slice it. Talk about a statement of artistic purpose: Fiona Apple is definitely not trying to pass for a modest pop professional yet. The title runs ninety words, or eighty-nine words longer than her debut, Tidal, and it might even run longer than her MTV Awards acceptance speech.

But if you find this twenty-two-year-old bad seed intolerably self-indulgent and were rooting for her to crash and burn with a humiliating second-album spaz-out — admit it, you were — you lose. When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks Oh the Hell With It — let's call it Fiona II — is richer, deeper and stronger than Tidal, in every way. The wispiness that made Tidal dismissible has been replaced by a far more muscular approach to both the songs and the singing. When she first appeared, she used to brag that she'd never listened to much rock & roll, and unfortunately, hearing was believing, as she got stuck in emotional and rhythmic quagmires where she could have used a little rock & roll momentum. But she apparently noticed that "Criminal," Tidal's hardest rocker, was also her star-making hit as well as her hands-down finest song. As producer Jon Brion plays a reverse George Martin to her Paul McCartney, Apple bears down on her voice and piano with enough rock command to produce some truly fine songs.

Her best moment is "Paper Bag," a White Album-style piano ditty that manages to combine Lennon's "Cry Baby Cry" with McCartney's "Martha My Dear." Like most of the songs here, it's got a surprisingly strong sound, with drums and keyboard effects rather than guitars to flesh out the melody. And although the wordplay is still too precious, Apple's deeper, more fiercely swinging voice keeps pushing the melody until the emotion comes through. "Fast As You Can," "The Way Things Are" and "I Know" are similar grippers, especially when you give them time to grow on you, and her voice has started leaving the jazzbo mannerisms behind, maturing into a handsome instrument that can handle her piano-ballad songcraft. Even the love-hurts cliches of the lyrics are full of surprises: "You can use my skin/To bury secrets in" is a great line that gets sadder and scarier with each listen.

In a way, Apple's music is a spiritual sister to the angst-ridden rap-metal of Korn and Limp Bizkit: From their albums, you'd guess that adolescence is all that these artists know or even imagine of life, with the outside world a dimly apprehended rumor. It's not just that these kids can't understand adults — they sound like they've never even met any, and they still haven't started feeling the most rudimentary pangs of curiosity about life beyond their emotional cocoon. The adolescent psychologist Dr. Pink Floyd used to call this condition Comfortably Numb, and if Apple's luxuriant voice makes her numbness sound too damn comfortable for grown-up tastes, it's a tribute to her talent that she also communicates a longing for more. She clearly craves something better out of her insular life, and although she isn't sure what it is, the longing is clear for anyone to hear in a powerhouse ballad like "Paper Bag." Apple has the talent, not to mention the fame and fortune, to seclude herself from the big bad world ahead of her. But Fiona II makes you hope that she'll find a way to use her talent as a connection to the world instead. Because she's an artist who deserves a shot at growing up.