Whether You'll prefer The Boatman's Call (Mute) to previous albums by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds can be ascertained by choosing between these two lyrical excerpts. 1) "It's good to hear you're doing so well/ But really can't you find some- body else that you can ring and tell?" and 2) "The carnival drums all mad in the air / Grim reapers and skeletons and a missionary bell." Both are from the new album, but while the latter is a handy two-line digest of Cave's entire previous oeuvre, the former is more representative of his latest work. At last, Cave is dissecting his own doomed relationships, instead of butchering doomed women.

In the Albert Hall on Monday, he was less willing to wear his heart on the sleeve of his tight black suit. The Bad Seeds opened with two lugubrious hymns from The Boatman's Call, "Far From Me" and "Lime Tree Arbour". But Cave was swaying, tense, pushing the music forward, and he seemed relieved when he could turn on the histrionics for one of his older, fervid, voodoo- blues songs, "Red Right Hand".

This clash of tones didn't make for a bad show, exactly, because The Bad Seeds are incapable of such a thing. The suave and sinister, gangstersuited band are masters of simple, relentless backing music, shot through with the screeches of a fire-and-brimstone violinist who is an even bigger ham than Cave. "The Mercy Seat", one continuous crescendo, is as hair- raising as pop gets.

But overall Cave wasn't sure of what he was doing, and the concert was a structureless succession of songs. Caught between the devil and the deep blue ballad, he never struck a satisfactory balance between old material and new, or between the genial, down-to-Earth cabaret man he is when introducing songs and the Satanic majesty he is when performing them.

Particularly telling was "Where the Wild Roses Grow", the chilling murder ballad on which Cave dueted with Kylie Minogue. In the merciful absence of La Minogue, her role was played by Blixa Bargeld, the Bad Seeds' vampiric guitarist. As Cave camped up such lines as, "She was more beautiful than any woman I'd seen", the song was reduced to a pantomime joke. Here was a man ranging around for the appropriate tone, not realising that, having sat at the piano and sung "Into My Arms" he need not have looked any further.

Of course, there are risks attendant on using your songs to post-mortem your relationships, the biggest one being the risk of unfashionability. Since Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill, there has been a backlash against young women who prefer to bare their souls than their bodies: it's all right for the blokes to dish up boorish gibberish, but it's boring for women to write lyrics that are deeply felt and smart.

It's time for a backlash against the backlash. There is room for plenty more of Ani DiFranco's bilious folk-punk and Patti Rothberg's Dylan-ish busking. And Fiona Apple is a welcome recruit to the ranks of Angry Young Women Who Wear Black Nail Varnish. On her frighteningly accomplished debut album, Tidal (Sony), the New Yorker (yes, Apple is from the Big Apple) leans away from Alanis's sweaty rock and towards the piano'n'poetry of Suzanne Vega and Tori Amos. Some of that poetry is overwritten and teenaged - "But then he rose, brilliant as the moon in full / And sank in the burrows of my keep" - but that's probably because Apple is a teenager.

The trouble starts when the immaturity that leaks into the 19-year-old's album threatens to flood her show at the Shepherd's Bush Empire on Tuesday. Between songs, she was the queen of psychobabble, telling us what it was like to have no friends at school because you're, like, too deep and individualistic: "You don't even feel that you're far away from everybody, 'cause you're, like, far away from yourself." It hasn't occurred to her that maybe nobody liked her because she was an unbearable poseur who chose to use her middle name as her surname, even though it made her sound like a cartoon character invented by the Dental Hygiene Board. The next time you're arguing that Americans have no sense of irony and your opponent says, "Yeah, what about Frasier?", you can reply, "Yeah, what about Fiona Apple?" and the debate will be over.

In other words, the faults that people wrongly ascribe to Morissette, Apple has in abundance. On those songs when she stood at the microphone instead of hunching over the Yamaha grand, she insisted on biting her fingers or draping her hands over her face, or grimacing, as if this soulful rock were the most cathartic, transporting music ever to touch human ears.

It isn't, but it's very good, nonetheless: rich, lush, rounded and intelligent, ranging from the smouldering, jazzy "Slow Like Honey" - as sensuous as its title - to "Sleep to Dream", a gutsy, flint-hard rebuke. "Shadowboxer" is a classic of the female-singer-songwriter genre - and there are plenty more where that came from.

Apple's precious, immature attitude is belied by a mature voice of such force that one can scarcely believe it emits from the body of a waif. And her Californian session musicians are much more subtle than Morissette's one-dimensional rock dudes (they don't actually say they're from California, but the (white) drummer has dreadlocks, the bassist has a goatee, and the guitarist wears goggles and a see-through T-shirt, so I think we can safely assume). It helps, too, that when Apple is not striking Little Girl Damaged poses, she is as strikingly gorgeous - and as worryingly thin - as a French model: huge, pale eyes, pneumatic lips, perfect cheekbones, brown hair reaching halfway down her narrow back, a navel ring jutting from a concave stomach. To summarise, then: sounds great, looks great, talks crap.