Sinéad O’Connor: Sean-Nos Nua

[6 February 2003]

By Ari Levenfeld

Sinead O’Connor has always done what she wanted to. For anyone in the music industry who’s made more than one album, that’s quite an accomplishment. Her debut CD The Lion and the Cobra is as shockingly good now as when it was released in 1987. Sinéad covered a lot of ground on that first album, ranging from the far reach of injustice in the world to a selection of fiercely passionate love songs. While many singer-songwriters reserve use their first record as a chance to show off the pipes, and perhaps their ability to craft a pop song, O’Connor laid down nine tracks worth of the world’s dirty laundry. Some of it was difficult to take, but she was just too good for us not to listen. Her follow up, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, included the song that put her on the map: “Nothing Compares 2 U”. MTV tossed the video for this desperate love song into the heavy rotation hopper, and she confronted the world face-to-face through her voice.

With all that has been written about the power of Sinéad O’Connor’s voice, I won’t waste any more adjectives here. For those that know how she sings, let it be known that she has lost nothing with her new album Sean Nos-Nua. In fact, it’s obvious that while the power and passion are still there, Sinéad has matured as a person, and her voice has taken nicely to the aging process. If you’ve never heard her sing before, this album is as good as any to start. While it doesn’t include anything that could remotely be called pop, or radio friendly, it will provide just as adequate an introduction to O’Connor’s range as any of her works.

Of course, Sinéad has always worn her defiance on her sleeve, and on top of her head. When she first burst onto the scene, many reporters asked about her shaved head. She responded that when she recorded her first album, the label wanted to doll her up and make her into a sex symbol like Sheila E. She responded by cutting all of her hair off. From the beginning this was part of O’Connor’s appeal.

But a series of defiant protests against political and religious tyranny that soon followed her initial success left a bad taste by many fans mouths. She was branded a troublemaker. After refusing to allow the “Star Spangled Banner” to play before her concert in a New Jersey arena, the American media painted her as a sort of Irish musical terrorist. Frank Sinatra actually threatened to beat her up over the incident. While I’m sure this left O’Connor satisfied that her message had been broadcast loud and clear, it also resulted in a blacklisting of her name. This was partially due to her own doing too—she refused to participate in the music industry’s Grammy Awards—but mostly because there was no barrier between her heart and tongue.

The albums that followed O’Connor’s impressive first two were tepidly received by the critics, and failed to sell many records. As this has always been the barometer of artistic success in the music industry, Sinéad O’Connor soon began to fade from the public eye.

As O’Connor moves on in her career, she seems more content to make exactly the records that she desires, and less inclined to have a hit. In fact, the allure of success hasn’t really struck her since 1992 when she released Am I Not Your Girl?, the follow up to the amazingly successful I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. Am I Not Your Girl? featured a series of standards written by non-rock and rollers like Andrew Lloyd Weber. The title of the album itself seemed to taunt its listener, suggesting how easily one love song can be replaced with another. Fans didn’t get the joke.

O’Connor simplifies even further on Sean-Nos Nua. The album, whose title means “In the True Old Style”, is a collection of 13 Irish folk songs that she either learned as a child, or discovered in recent years. As O’Connor points out in the liner notes, many of the songs are similar in that they deal with the enduring pain of unconditional love. It is her belief that “pain can be turned into something positive and beautiful” through song. She’s also stated several times that this is the album she’s been dying to make all of her life. So it’s no wonder that she wanted to do it right. She recruits Irish folk luminaries Donal Lunny, Christy Moore and Sharon Shannon to play along with her siren voice on each track.

The pacing of Sean-Nos Nua is magnificent. There’s such a range of sad songs here, an improper arrangement would have made it difficult to listen to all the way through. But O’Connor, who produced the album, did a wonderful job of weaving the melodies together, so that listening to Sean-Nos Nua, you might imagine yourself on a cool green Irish hillside leaning on a mossy rock wall.

The album opens with “Peggy Gordon”, a seemingly simple song of lost love. In the notes that O’Connor provides, she states that while “Peggy Gordon” was commonly sung by men pining for the love past years, it was first revealed to her by a woman who was lamenting the loss of her female lover. O’Connor goes on to say that she was struck by the use of the song as an expression of homosexual love, which in her native Ireland is not allowed a voice. She treats the tune like a lullaby, gently unfolding the precious lyrics, which reverberate next to Donal Lunny’s tender guitar work. O’Connor allows a brief respite with the bittersweet “Her Mantle So Green” which proceeds “Peggy Gordon”. Like many of the songs on Sean-Nos Nua, there is a melodic narrative to follow. Here, a man returns home in disguise after the war, to test his love’s fidelity. The lilting voice and crisp production allows O’Connor’s voice to sparkle along, as if she was the first to ever sing the tune.

Much of the album mimics this pattern. Fading melancholy followed by a more upbeat number. All this, and O’Connor still allows herself to provide a little history lesson on Ireland’s stormy past. The desperate plea of “Lord Franklin” reveals the nineteenth century story of explorer Sir John Franklin, who set out to discover a passage through the Arctic Ocean. When his ship failed to return, his wife spent the rest of her life chartering search parties for her lost love. Or “Paddy’s Lament”, which details the plight of Irishmen who set out for America to find a better life, only to be conscripted into the Civil War upon setting foot on the docks. O’Connor does not just sing for herself, or even her homeland. She sings for the entire history of her people. In doing so, she reveals that this might not be such a simple collection of Irish folk tunes after all.

Sean-Nos Nua promises no return to Sinéad O’Connor’s early work. However, for those infatuated with her magical voice, this album of work doesn’t disappoint. The classic songs of her country provide the perfect showcase for what even O’Connor’s greatest critics can’t deny: her ability to sing. Maybe if she had been allowed to make this album from the beginning, she could have saved Frank Sinatra a lot of ruffled feathers.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/oconnorsinead-sean/