“Theology is an attempt to create a place of peace in a time of war and to provoke thought. The events of September 11, 2001 contributed to the writing of the songs very very much so, as did events subsequently as they have panned out all over the world. The whole world became a very dangerous place on that day. I simply wanted to make a beautiful thing, out of something beautiful, which inspires me. Theology, the record, apart from being a place of peace and meditation, is a very personal emotional response.”—Sinead O’Connor (in press material)
With these words, Sinead O’Connor outlines the motivation behind and purposes driving the recording of her latest album, Theology. Over time, the enigmatic singer-songwriter has acquired a reputation for owning an unconventional approach to her music and career, eschewing paths and choices oft expected for those of her status and talent (which, ironically, may turn into an expected behavior when O’Connor’s movements are analyzed by others). So, it is likely of little surprise to note that O’Connor’s endeavor to form an intimate, distinctively individual response to contemporary social and spiritual climates takes unique shape as a double album, offering dual versions of almost every song recorded.
Does O’Connor succeed in achieving her stated purposes through the means of these two manifestly different recordings of almost identical set lists? The answer is not a definite, unqualified “yes”, but more frequently than not, O’Connor hits the inspirational and emotional targets for which she has aimed. As far as creating a setting of peace and meditation, the album affords serene moments of expression suitable for fostering the focus and reflection O’Connor wishes to stir. As promised, she gives the listener much to think about; among the various themes explored, O’Connor addresses ideas pertaining to the expression of spiritual devotion through both personal and public worship, the acknowledgement of racism (most notably touched on Curtis Mayfield’s “We People Who Are Darker than Blue”), and God’s interaction with humankind.
O’Connor needn’t worry about Theology failing to come across as a “very personal emotional response.” Though many of the concepts discussed have wide-reaching, universal application, O’Connor’s spirit and personality permeate the record. Her insights often serve as stimuli for further consideration, though occasionally the personalizing of these concepts seems a bit distracting, calling attention away from the Almighty and to the manner in which O’Connor expresses and views her beliefs.
Sparse, quiet, and indeed contemplative, Theology begins with the Dublin Sessions disc, produced by traditional Irish musician Steve Cooney. Arranged solely for voice and guitar, O’Connor and Cooney are the only players present on the recording and, to their credit, achieve a definite union of spirit and tenor. While the disc’s early tracks establish the tranquil tone O’Connor had in mind and provide much in the way of pastoral beauty, there is little melodically or otherwise to provide distinction between the similarly set songs. By midway through the disc, however, a spark of creative vision sets O’Connor and Cooney upon a streak of wonderfully inspired, moving pieces of music.
“If I Had a Vineyard” initiates this progression with its wonderful sense of motion and runs approaching the melismatic in places, the song features the most striking melody of the eight new O’Connor compositions which grace the project. The disc takes a step backward with the dark and melodramatic “Watcher of Men”, but hits its stride with a beautiful quartet of songs: “33”, “The Glory of Jah”, “Whomsoever Dwells” and O’Connor’s fleeting yet poignant take on the traditional “Rivers of Babylon”.
O’Connor admits she intended only for the Dublin Sessions to be released but the enthusiasm she felt for demos recorded with producer Ron Tom prompted her to include disc two, London Sessions, on the project. Fleshed out in more typical pop/rock arrangements, the tracks take on a different sense of life and being, framing the sincerity of O’Connor’s piety in a vein which might seem more palatable to listeners not attuned to the idyllic tones of the project’s opening half. London Sessions draws upon essentially the same material, with some reordering and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar replacing “Hosanna Filio David” which closed the Dublin Sessions disc.
Just as did the Dublin Sessions, the London recordings open with “Something Beautiful” in which O’Connor musically restates one of her purposes for the record: “I wanna make something beautiful / For U and from U / To show U I adore U”. The gentle momentum added through the expansion of the song’s arrangement lends support and allows O’Connor to achieve her voiced wish to create a stirring offering of praise. Just as O’Connor creates lovely moments through delicate textures on disc one, disc two provides occasions of radiance through more obviously emotional expressions. “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” is a welcome addition to the project and O’Connor delivers Webber’s work in spectacular fashion with gradual instrumental swells and a vocal performance which communicates all the simultaneous anguish and awe present in Tim Rice’s words. “If You Had a Vineyard” and “The Glory of Jah” flourish in their new settings (subtle but rousing as they are), proving the quality of O’Connor’s craft in her construction of these works.
This is not to say that more instruments necessarily equals more power for each song; the London treatment of Mayfield’s work as well as “33” suffer overly pop-y arrangements and processed beats which seem uncharacteristic choices for these tracks. “Whomsoever Dwells”, a highlight of disc one falters under the weight of somber string figures which are a feature of its fresh re-recording.
Though uneven at times, Theology features a very genuine spirit of expression and much food for thought. The musical duality displayed evidences O’Connor’s ability to produce affecting works on both a simple and grand level. While flaws are able to be illuminated and while some listeners might find Theology another avenue with which to malign certain aspects of O’Connor’s musical persona; ultimately, this is a charismatic and appealing record which has the potential to draw listeners back to uncover hidden depths.