“She’s a warrior queen, trust me.”
Sinead O’Connor was the original riot grrrl; she took on the Pope, Margaret Thatcher, Bono and Frank Sinatra; she ripped the guts out of a man who dared to leave her and then threw her career away to become the first female priest in her own Catholic/Rastafarian/Lesbian Nunnery ... or something like that. O’Connor has always feasted on forbidden fruit, while enticing her audience to join in or push off.
She has also demonstrated an uncanny ability, like Van Morrison or Emmylou Harris, to go straight for the heart of a song, take it by the neck and shake it free from any protective plumage. Her gorgeous, stark voice, at times childishly tender or mawkishly cruel, picks up on the essentials, while leaving all superfluity behind.
When she first leapt into the limelight in the late ‘80s, she came on as Kate Bush gone to boot camp: head shaved and shrouded in the anger and mythology of songs “Troy” and “Mandinka.” Barely 20 years old in 1987 (when she produced her debut, The Lion and The Cobra) she helped pave the way with her feral vocals and aggressive demeanor for female artists that followed in her wake such as Liz Phair, Alanis Morrissette and Fiona Apple. O’Connor’s 1990 release, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got revealed a more vulnerable side and brought her a wider audience. The tears she shed in her video of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” struck a chord with the masses, who responded by making it #1 on the Billboard charts for eight weeks. Through a simple close up of her face, O’Connor conveyed an intensity and empathy not seen since the days when Tammy Faye Bakker’s mascara ran all over her poodle. It remains one of her most enduring images or would have, until things began to go awry.
First there was the tussle with Frank Sinatra who threatened to “kick her ass” because she refused to perform at a concert in New Jersey if the “The Star Spangled Banner” was played before her appearance. Then came the dreaded SNL incident. On 3 October 1992, she appeared on “Saturday Night Live” and ripped-up a photo of Pope John Paul II while singing Bob Marley’s “War.” What few people recall, however, was that it was to protest pedophilia in the Catholic Church, a worthwhile cause by anyone’s standards, but one which hadn’t yet permeated the American psyche.
A ferocious backlash followed, from which the singer still hasn’t fully recovered. Even today the scene is edited out on reruns of “SNL”, either a damning example of censorship in the age of “big media”, or a curious revelation about the clout of Catholics in the US.
Other albums followed: 1994’s peripatetic Universal Mother and 2000’s return to form, Faith and Courage, before O’Connor courted controversy again by announcing she was a lesbian and then quitting music to be ordained as a priest. O’Connor has always taken the path less trodden, often at her own peril, and for that courage she is to be commended. Few artists in any genre have the talent it takes to be genuine iconoclasts.
Throw Down Your Arms, her latest release, is an impeccably executed album of classic roots reggae tunes. Recorded at the legendary Tuff Gong Studios in Kingston, Jamaica, and produced by Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, the album plays like a seamless rasta celebration to Jah, the most high. The opener, “Jah Nuh Dead”, is stripped down to its a-cappella gospel bones before the band plunges into the dread groove of Burning Spear’s militant “Marcus Garvey.” Lee “Scratch” Perry’s tender “Curly Locks”, is a “Waiting In Vain” style ballad in the Marley tradition, warmed up with organ and a smooth sax solo that floats feather-like above the rhythm.
O’Connor’s version of Buju Banton’s stirring “Untold Stories” is reminiscent of the gritty indignation on her “Black Boys On Mopeds” from 1990; “It’s a competitive world for low budget people / Spending a dime while earning a nickel / With no regards to who it may tickle.” It’s a magnificent cover that enhances the original, actually bettering Banton’s rougher mix.
Unlike some roots reggae albums that suffer from too much of the same, like the Abyssinians’ Satta Massagana from 1976, Sly and Robbie vary the rhythms and arrangements enough to keep the songs accessible and interesting, without sacrificing their authenticity. From the predatory sway of Peter Tosh’s “Downpressor Man” and Perry’s “Vampire”, to the sweet back-up vocals on the roots classic, “Prophet Has Arise”, the songs evoke all the colors of a reggae sunsplash.
At times, however, O’Connor seems overwhelmed by the pedigree of her company and her restraint is palatable. Rather than take the tradition and fashion it for her own ends, as she did more consistently on 2002’s Sean-Nos Nua, the genre subsumes her, sapping much of the spontaneity and passion from her craft. Perhaps it’s misplaced reverence, or the ganja, but on “Door Peep” and “He Prayed”, her performance is hesitant, and even dull. On The Abyssinians’ “Y Mas Gan”, she sings “If we can’t be good / we’ll be careful / And do the best that we can”; and that’s the problem. O’Connor has always been most potent when she throws a little caution to the wind.
For O’Connor, it may have been enough to travel to Jamaica, play with the greats and “give thanks and praise” to Jah. But her transformative power, her ability to make the music illuminate with a febrile grace, has always been her charm. Some of it shines through here, but on balance, Throw Down Your Arms is not O’Connor the artist in so much as it’s O’Connor the disciple. And as every good preacher knows, a sermon is nothing without a bit of fire and brimstone.