Can you remember your first Sinead O’Connor moment? Most people can. Reactions generally fell into two campsthunderous outrage (Who does this poseur think she is?) and spellbinding wonderment (I need to know everything about this woman…NOW). I was part of the latter category. I was around 15 when she broke in 1987. Female musical artists hadn’t really registered on my radar up to that point. Sure, there was Madonna and Cyndi and Annie and Boy, and they sure as hell were fun to dance to in basements at friend’s birthday parties, but they always left me craving something a bit more. What it was I wanted I didn’t know—maybe a sound that would linger in my mind after I finished spinning around a room, maybe words that would mean something to me in some way. “Lucky Star” and “She-Bop,” as brilliant as they are, just weren’t cutting it anymore.
Everything changed when I saw Sinead O’Connor’s “Mandinka” on 120 Minutes. I’d never seen a woman that looked like that before (no one had, really, except for those who sat through the first Star Trek movie). I’d never heard a woman scream like that before. She seemed truly disturbed. I’d only known women to be cute or perky or sexy to that point. I didn’t know what the hell she was talking about in that song. All I know is that I immediately identified with that wail—it gave voice to sexual conflicts festering inside me that I didn’t know how to name or deal with. When I turned off the television, it felt like a train had just run through my head.
The rest is history. Her first album, The Lion and the Cobra, goes on to become one of the most auspicious singer-songwriter debuts of all time, netting her a Grammy nomination and waves of critical drool large enough to wash out the Atlantic Ocean. The single “I Want Your Hands on Me” becomes an instant club hit; an adoring cult following comes together quickly. The buzz about the startling cue ball with the funny name becomes deafening in the as yet unnamed world of “alternative” music.
Her sophomore release, the modestly titled I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, was anything but—heartbreaking, thematically rich, adventurously constructed (remember the smooth transition from the grand orchestral sweep of the opener, “Feel So Different,” to the James Brown hip-hop beat of “Stretched on Your Grave”?) and an unexpected mainstream hit. It was undoubtedly 1990’s biggest music story—a truly original, albeit perplexing star was born. I remember being at my senior prom, watching all the loathsome idiots of my graduating class slow-dance to “Nothing Compares 2 U,” thinking “They’re falling in love to an obscure Prince ballad sung by a bald Public Enemy advocate whose unfeminine appearance three years prior caused them to turn up their noses in disgust.” Weird.
And boy, things sure did get weird after that. Really weird. And controversial. In what seemed like only a matter of seconds, O’Connor went from being a highly respected trailblazer to vilified, irritating National Enquirer fodder. Remember her refusal to perform in New Jersey if “The Star Spangled Banner” was played before one of her concerts? And the Chairman of the Board’s threat in response (“I’ll kick her ass!”)? Then there’s the first Saturday Night Live incident—pulling out as the musical guest in response to loutish comedian Andrew Dice Clay’s appearance as the host. I Do Not Want was nominated for four Grammies around this same time, but O’Connor mysteriously and officially withdrew herself from the competition.
Her follow-up album, Am I Not Your Girl? was ignored by both critics and fans alike, and for good reason. Unlike her first two releases, this one was unexceptional in just about every way. You’d think that if anyone could put a new spin on pop standards it would be O’Connor, right? Wrong. This record found its way into cutout bins faster than Belly’s King.
Then of course came the Pope incident. This time accepting an invitation to appear on SNL in 1992, O’Connor ended the performance of her last number by holding up a picture of the Pope, ripping it, and asking viewers to “Fight the real enemy.” The world gasped, and an artist with a once red-hot career found herself retreating into a deep, socially imposed exile.
Things settled down a bit, at least musically. Her personal life was still a soap-opera wreck—there were reports of a nervous breakdown, as well as a failed suicide attempt. But 1994’s Universal Mother garnered some smashing reviews (the song “John I Love You” is one of her best), as did 1997’s Gospel Oak EP. Her die-hard fans got talking again about the upswing her career was on. It was beginning to look like Sinead the artist was slowly but surely rising from the crumbling ashes of the vituperative international tabloid press.
Her latest release, Faith and Courage, is her first full-length album since Universal Mother, and there’s a lot riding on it. It’s being touted as her big comeback—there’s been tons of positive press (“You’ve mended your ways, Sinead. Welcome back”), the roster of producers is beyond impressive (Brian Eno, Wyclef Jean and Dave Stewart, to name a few), and the album cover itself smacks of forgiveness and renewal (head dutifully bowed, with a bright-orange flame emerging from the top). I want to be one of those whose faith has been renewed in her newfound voice, vision and abilities, I really want to be. But the truth is, I lost interest in O’Connor’s relevance ages ago—she crossed my line of tolerance for stupid, irrational diva behavior sometime around the pope incident. Still, I always root for the underdog, and this woman’s first two albums hold a permanent place in my heart. So writing what I’m about to write is hard. Faith and Courage is a failure.
My big question is this: where did the edge go? It’s still there a bit, but it seems forced and contrived this time around, both musically and lyrically. You’d think with the way she’s been knocked down and dragged about (even though a lot of those wounds were self-inflicted) through the mid-to-late nineties that she’d come screaming back in the new millennium with an intensity to rival some of The Lion and the Cobra‘s most intense, blood-curdling moments.
But the whole album is about as exciting as a bowl of oatmeal. The arrangements are all extremely bland and over-produced (there are 11 different producers on this album—that’s never a good thing), veering from the polite Wyndham Hill sound on “Dancing Lessons” to the Irish Spring Soap commerical-esque feel of “If U Ever.” “No Man’s Woman,” the album’s most talked-about song, is perhaps the lamest and most naive tune ever written about coming out of the closet. The lyrics are overly obvious and cliched—“I don’t want to be no man’s woman / I’ve other work I want to get done / I haven’t traveled this far to become no man’s woman.” This from the same woman who wrote “Jerusalem”? Hopefully, a lesbian fan will tell her that it’s just as easy to become a “woman’s woman.”
It doesn’t get much better. “Daddy I’m Fine,” O’Connor’s letter of reassurance to her father about rock star life, sounds like something that would have fit better into I Do Not Want, and the last track, the traditional “Kyrie Eleison,” ends the album on a very muddled note. What could have been the saving grace of the album (it’s a hard song to go wrong with) comes off as confused—the occasional bursts of rastafarian shouting are an utter annoyance, worse than a buzzing fly in the ear.
I know O’Connor can’t play the angry woman forever. But she must realize where her strengths lie as a performer. She doesn’t need burbling, new-agey electronic bleeps and blurps and a slick studio sound to accompany that soaring voice of hers. Go back to the tried and true basics—maybe do a stark acoustic album, or hire an orchestra to emphasize heighten the drama that escapes from your throat. Just don’t go back to the pedestrian sound of this album—it’s all too safe and polite, and safe and polite are two words she turned on top of their heads a long time ago.
// Notes from the Road
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