In March of a brand new decade, 1990, a quirky and intimate record was released with seemingly little aspiration to reach an audience beyond open-minded punks, political activists, and earth mothers. That record was Sinéad O’Connor’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. It would quickly reach the number one position on the Billboard chart, manage to stay in the top 20 for most of that summer, and end the year as the 19th most popular album. The ubiquitous single, “Nothing Compares 2 U”, was the third most popular song of 1990. The video for the song is still iconic. Suddenly, O’Connor was everywhere.
I Do Not Want was O’Connor’s sophomore effort after the intensely poetic The Lion and the Cobra, released three years earlier. The distance between The Lion and the Cobra and I Do Not Want is only a few steps but to anyone who has spent time living in blissful self-righteousness only to be confronted with the truths of the world, those strides will create confusion that must be studied and picked apart for reason. Consciously or not, O’Connor created a document of fragility and betrayal, ultimately arriving at hopefulness. It’s also emblematic of the age she was at the time, early 20s, when youthful idealism and innocence begins to bump up against the day-to-day.
Because of the parade of events that followed Sinéad’s trajectory into the public eye, one may assume that she had nothing in her but rashness and a will to be controversial for the sake of it. She tore up the pope’s picture on Saturday Night Live, declared herself pro-IRA, and went on record lambasting Prince (author of “Nothing Compares 2 U”). These are some of the things that eventually overshadowed her art. Almost 20 years later, though, what is most evident is how O’Connor mixed her toughness with obvious introspection to create a work that is still astounding.
Sonically, there’s a gut level rhythm that courses through I Do Not Want, which owes almost as much to the pristine production (by O’Connor) as it does to the songs themselves. O’Connor was schooled in the songs of her homeland, Ireland, and obviously understands basic rock posturing (be it through melodrama or ballads). But she was also interested in the rhymes and forcefulness of hip-hop and the lilting, airy sound of reggae. Songs like “I Am Stretched on Your Grave” and the great “Night Nurse” (from the bonus disc, a Gregory Isaacs cover) leave a chunk of melody in the drums and the power in her vocals. “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “Jump in the River” sound like what so very many 1990s indie pop bands wanted to achieve, but just didn’t have the chops for. It’s a big sound, owing a bit to the tight construct of many of the best ’80s songs, but inching forward into the skewed take on classic rock that Jane’s Addiction and the Red Hot Chili Peppers were playing with at the time.
Then there is Sinéad’s forte, her version of a ballad, which often ends in ferocious wailing. “Three Babies”, “Black Boys on Mopeds”, and “The Last Day of Our Acquaintance” allow her to show off her expertise with an acoustic guitar. Instead of using the instrument as if its only purpose is to further an agenda, she plays with controlled ferocity, making the strings sound more like an orchestra. It would be another seven years before another guitar player would use the instrument to such great effect, when Jeff Mangum’s Neutral Milk Hotel released In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.
I Do Not Want runs through myriad scenarios that call for some sort of acceptance. In “Three Babies” it is a simple: “For myself / I ask no one else / To be mother to these three.” “Black Boys on Mopeds”, an overtly political song, still arrives at a personal conclusion which gives it the same weight two decades later: “England’s not the mythical land of Madame George and roses / It’s the home of police who kill black boys on mopeds / And I love my boy / And that’s why I’m leaving.” O’Connor decides to sidestep others’ relationship advice on “Jump in the River” when she sings, “And I’m not going to change my mind / Just because of what they said / The worm has laid eggs in their hearts / But not in my head.” Like the Clash’s London Calling, this is a recording that manages to talk about the issues of the day while still leaving everything on a distinctly mundane, and therefore universal, level. O’Connor chronicles here; she does not preach. This important difference, found in the details, is how we relate to it.
The bonus disc collects odds and ends from this time period. As such, they work remarkably well. Even the inclusion of “Silent Night” in the middle of the disc does nothing to deter enjoyment. There’s a distinct ’80s feel in the production to “Damn Your Eyes” and John Lennon’s “Mind Games” that sounds celebratory of that age as opposed to dated. “My Special Child” has always been one of her best songs, haunting even as it is an ode, and what she does to Cole Porter’s “You Do Something to Me” should cause the questioning of the motives of those who trashed O’Connor’s next release, a record of popular standards.
In the three years after her first album, no doubt helped along by the presence of a child in her life, Sinéad O’Connor grew up a little. As a document of an artist, removed from the melodrama of the time, it is fascinating. This is where she laid down much of her anger and put on her wandering, searching spirit full-time. She has since worked with torch songs, reggae, and traditional Irish folk songs. She has quit the business and then come back. She found a group that ordained her a Catholic priest. She has been in the news more often for her opinions than for her music.
I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got is the stepping-stone. It shows the world a woman, a human being, who knew she couldn’t change everything, or maybe anything, but was still going to try. It’s a statement of commitment, one she has stuck by. Some might say for worse but the long run will show her determination will not be for naught. In the whole of music history, there aren’t a lot of recordings that are as beautiful and compelling as I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. Sinéad O’Connor executed a work of art that displays imperfection — her own, other’s, the world’s — and in doing so finds its own place of near perfection, which is all we flawed mortals can strive for.