It’s surprisingly easy to think of Sinead O’Connor’s career in the past tense, and not just because of incidents in her career that many would consider professional suicide. Granted, a quick read of O’Connor’s biographical information reveals one controversial moment after another (even if you don’t count the doozies, such as her ripping up Pope John Paul II’s picture on Saturday Night Live, there’s still plenty to go around). But to some degree, what did we expect? O’Connor came out of the gate espousing highly-charged political views, and both her physical appearance and artistic seriousness were proud challenges to pop culture’s notions of femininity. And as much as “Nothing Compares to U” ruled the airwaves in 1990, the album from which it came, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, drew as much of its personality and power from a song like “Black Boys on Mopeds”, which lacerated Thatcher’s Britain with a venom seldom seen since Dylan (which creates an ironic bit of full circle, since it was a pro-Dylan crowd who booed her off the stage shortly after the pope incident).
Consequently, O’Connor has always seemed ill-suited for public life, especially for the harrowing gauntlet it inflicts on anyone with a strong opinion. As much bad publicity as she’s gotten in the past, though, just think what it would be like in today’s environment of not only rabid paparazzi, but of scolding pundits who rarely let anything like reasoned debate get in the way of robust finger-wagging. The fact that O’Connor—as opposed to, say, Madonna—never had an air of cold calculation would have only made matters worse (although I have to admit it would be a whole lotta fun to watch O’Connor tear some talking head a new one).
Despite all of this, it became amazingly easy to lose track of O’Connor’s career, apart from reading the stray article about something she’d said or done. After 1994’s fairly strong Universal Mother, it was a full six years before she returned with Faith and Courage. 2002’s Sean-Nós Nua was a retrenching (of sorts) into traditional Irish folk, and by the time she released 2003’s vault-clearing She Who Dwells in the Secret Place of the Most High Shall Abide Under the Shadow of the Almighty, she had announced her retirement from the mainstream music machine, equating the music industry’s sincerity with that of a “whore’s kiss”. (She plans to release two decidedly non-mainstream albums—one a reggae effort, the other in a spiritual vein—in 2005.)
During all those years, though, she was also lending her voice to projects by other artists, or assisting with remixes of her own material. It’s this material that comprises Collaborations. While the disc has standout tracks of its own, it’s fair to say that little here reaches the heights of O’Connor’s best material—although most of them are very strong. Collaborations are a tricky business, and in cases where O’Connor guests on another artist’s track, she presumably deferred to their artistic visions (it’s hard to imagine, for example, Peter Gabriel’s “Blood of Eden” without O’Connor’s sterling vocals for counterbalance, but it’s very much a Peter Gabriel song in tone and style). However, in every case on Collaborations, you’re reminded of two things that you’d think would be hard to forget: 1) O’Connor’s voice is gorgeous, ranging from a breathy whisper to that full-throated howl she unleashed years back on “Mandinka”; and 2) she rarely competes with the song, matching the arrangements perfectly in tone and mood.
Nowhere is this more evident than on the disc’s first four tracks. Massive Attack’s “Special Cases” is all aswirl with spooky atmospherics and a menacing bass line, which O’Connor fittingly matches with a slightly quavering but mostly flat and affectation-free vocal. “1000 Mirrors”, with Asian Dub Foundation, finds her voice rising and falling astride the song’s needly melody. “Guide Me God”, with Ghostland, features a subtle blend of O’Connor and Natacha Atlas’ voices finding a path amidst Middle Eastern-tinged guitar lines. The disc’s highlight, though, is “Empire”, featuring Bomb the Bass and reggae poet Benjamin Zephaniah. The arrangement’s bed is somehow strident and fluid at the same time, punctuated by Zephaniah’s passionate spoken word interludes, and O’Connor is right in her element. Comparing the empire in question to a vampire that “feed[s] on the life of a pure heart”, she drills down to specifics by song’s end: “From now on, I’ll call you England”.
About halfway through, Collaborations shifts its focus from electronic music acts (in addition to the aforementioned Massive Attack, Asian Dub Foundation, and Bomb the Base, artists like Jah Wobble, Afro Celt Sound System, and Moby all make appearances) to more traditional fare. It’s also where the album weakens a bit, as her collaboration with U2 falls prey to that band’s law of diminishing returns, and “Kingdom of Rain” is far from the strongest The The track ever written. By the time all is said and done, though, we’re offered tracks with Aslan, Damien Dempsey, and the Colourfield (as well as a cut with Colourfield leader [and former Specials singer] Terry Hall on his own), each of them showcasing O’Connor in a slightly different light.
All in all, Collaborations is a reasonably diverse batch of songs—nearly all of them enjoyable, and some of them quite inspired. It probably won’t be enough to change some people’s perceptions of O’Connor, but if one thing shines through these collaborations, it’s that O’Connor’s iconoclastic musical spirit is something we’d do well to keep track of.
// Notes from the Road
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