Scathing protests, familial longings, and one very improbable character study -- all unmistakably Sinéad.
Good Lord, there are moments here as bloodcurdling as anything she’s ever done. Sinéad O’Connor, that is; and “here” is her ninth studio album, How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?, on which the most bloodcurdling moment is the song “Take Off Your Shoes”. “Shoes” has been kicking around the internet for a while, but it sounds especially ferocious coming after the optimistic “Old Lady” (more on that in a bit). “I bleed the blood of Jesus over you”, O’Connor begins, invoking some terrifying divine presence bleeding vengeance, not forgiveness, over the heathens. “The Holy Spirit sings to the Vatican”, she describes it; I hear the magisterial title characters from Angels in America. For bloody judgment, “Shoes” also recalls Tori Amos’s rendition of Slayer’s “Raining Blood”, which Amos envisioned as “a huge juicy vagina coming out of the sky, raining blood over all those racist, misogynist fuckers” -- i.e., oppressors of women in Afghanistan.
But O’Connor doesn’t settle for Amos’s quiet creepiness -- she embodies the avenging Spirit, building and building in intensity, multitracking the different timbres of her voice into a caterwaul that combines the best elements of an air raid siren and a slap in the face. To read her climactic words -- “I see you’re runnin’ out of battery! / And I don’t see no bunnies / Around here” -- is to wonder how she’s survived as a lyricist. But who are we to argue when the Holy Spirit (or whoever) sees theological implications in the Energizer Bunny? As in The Sopranos, when Tony would fret over some mundane aspect of family life before committing brutal murders, O’Connor’s stream of corniness renders her divine force more believable and more shocking.
Also shocking, given her recent marital yo-yos in real life, is this line from the bouncy album opener “4th and Vine”: “I’m gonna marry my love / And we’ll be happy for all time.” Later in the song she waxes about having six children who will also be happy for all time, just because everybody in the O’Connor household loves one another so much, tra la la. (She also transforms “buggy ride” into a useful sex euphemism.) Two other songs celebrate love in terms most eight-year-olds would understand. On the first single “The Wolf Is Getting Married”, the lucky Wolf will “never cry again”. And in the aforementioned “Old Lady”, O’Connor dreams, “One day he’ll say, ‘That’s my girl’ / The happiest words in the world / Make me laugh like an idiot / Not be so serious”. This from a woman who wrote and sang “The Last Day of Our Acquaintance”, a clear-eyed account of divorce, 22 years ago! She must know that marriages, even successful ones, don’t bring about happiness “for all time”, so what’s going on here?
What’s happening is that O’Connor the lyricist is getting better and better at apparent artlessness. Much like John Lennon on Double Fantasy or Lou Reed on New Sensations, O’Connor writes songs that seem like simple conduits for her personality. Her lyrics don’t put on airs and they invite derision. She writes lines that nobody aiming for the Great Irish Songbook would ever allow themselves. So, you know, her Holy Spirit really digs Energizer commercials. Or, when O’Connor impersonates a lovestruck teenager in “Old Lady”, she writes with diaristic awkwardness, “I even act like I don’t like him... [Because] everyone would know I love him / And that’s so uncool / ‘Cause it’s messing with all the rules”. In the moving, not-quite-acapella closer “V.I.P.”, O’Connor becomes a rhymin’ preacher, decrying Kanye-style bling and organized religion like they’re the same thing: “To whom exactly are we giving hope / When we stand behind the velvet rope / Or get our pictures taken with the Pope / Like some sick April fool kind of joke”. Her cover of John Grant’s hilarious, rambling “Queen of Denmark” fits in perfectly. She’s pared her songwriting back to its essence -- simple lines that sort of rhyme -- to better express her messy, inexpressible personality.
When this approach works, as it does gloriously in “Old Lady” and “4th and Vine”, the songs’ simplicity opens up a world of complexity. (When it doesn’t work, as on the icky “I Had a Baby”, O’Connor’s lyrical diary crosses the line into navel-gazing.) Of course O’Connor knows getting married won’t make her “happy for all time”. But the more desperately she clings to the promise of eternal bliss, the more poignant her songs become. Listening to the whole album, with its mix of angry songs butted right up next to familial longings, it’s easy to see your own complex anger in the juxtaposition, particularly since the Catholic Church’s PR department lately prizes tone-deaf arrogance over all else. (Seriously, I wanna love the Church, but “Shoes” and “V.I.P.” make me mad at the whole enterprise. Has any other recent protest music been so potent?) O’Connor, like all of us, contains multitudes.
Fortunately for Sinéad the songwriter, she’s working with Sinéad the vocalist, who possesses a divine gift: on any given note, she can choose from four or five different voices, all unmistakably Sinéad. Multitudes of multitudes! She moves from whispers to bleats and back again, sometimes within the same syllable. O’Connor and her longtime drummer/producer John Reynolds create choirs of sweet, angelic Sinéads to ping pong behind braying Sinéads, while more plainspoken Sinéads deliver “V.I.P.” in austere harmony. The versatile band of studio professionals -- guitar, bass, drums, and organ -- supply momentum and atmosphere, and then get out of the way of O’Connor’s forthright melodies. There’s hardly anything in the way of riffs or solos, nothing to distract from the tumbling cascades of Sinéads.
Besides “I Had a Baby”, a couple other songs don’t work. On a 10-song album, that’s a problem, though not as big a problem as you might expect -- it’s paced well. Most glaring is the junkie profile “Reason With Me”, an improbable character study where the character inhabits Sinéad’s writing style, rather than the other way around. “Oh so long I been a junkie / I ought to wrap it up and mind my monkeys”, indeed. Much like Ani DiFranco’s unsuccessful new character study “Life Boat”, “Reason With Me” shows that its author is at her best when she’s herself, unfettered and larger than life. Sinéad O’Connor remains character enough.