By Kyle Anderson
Updated March 15, 2012 at 03:09 PM EDT
Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

Attack of the '90s

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It’s been over 15 years since the lovely angst of Fiona Apple’s debut album Tidal swept through the pop world and made her both an instant sensation and a lightning rod (see: this video) for controversy.

Since then the singer has moved in — and more often, out — of the public sphere, weathering both personal heartbreak and professional woe while wending her way to another album with a really long title, due this spring.

Apple has hardly been onstage since she toured for Extraordinary Machine in 2007, making her set at Stubb’s BBQ in Austin, as part of South by Southwest, a pretty high-stakes coming-out party. And accordingly, her early-evening set attracted a massive throng of curious onlookers, most of whom seemed to have a tremendous amount of emotional baggage tied up in Apple’s early work.

So is the old Fiona back for good? The jury remains out. Apple had moments of true transcendence during her set, peaking with a passionate reading of the Tidal single “Sleep to Dream,” which inspired a full-throated sing-along from the crowd. At times, though, it seemed like her voice was not at 100 percent; moments during both the show-opening “Fast as You Can” and the set-closing “Criminal” came out strained.

And Apple’s songs have never really been built for the outdoors; they’re far too rhythmically weird and sonically whimsical, and the open-airness of Stubb’s worked against the intricacies of otherwise lovely constructions like “Extraordinary Machine.”

But for all the nostalgia floating through the air on Wednesday night, the best moments of Apple’s show came during the unveiling of three new songs. The best, an almost jaunty track called “Anything We Want,” showed off her voice in the best possible way, letting her cram a cascade of words into a twisting narrative without sounding burdensome. The song doesn’t have the same sort of slinky groove science as “Criminal” or the emotional wallop of “Carrion” (which also showed up in Wednesday night’s set), but it felt like an excellent and natural evolution from the work she did on Extraordinary Machine.

For all that movement forward, Fiona is still Fiona. She joked about how she had to keep reminding herself that she was playing in front of a crowd (“You’re imaginary, right?” she asked), and toyed with dancing before repeatedly throwing in the towel (which is expected for someone who sings, “I tried to dance but lost my nerve”).

She’s far more comfortable in her own skin, too—at the end of the night, she told everybody to have a great time over the weekend, and it was clear she genuinely meant it.

Watch her perform “Anything We Want,” below:

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Attack of the '90s

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