Sinead in Irish Times 1997
Sinead in Irish Times 1997
The stuff that surrounds her is usually louder than the music: but can you have Sinéad O'Connor without all that other stuff? Definitely not, says Brian Boyd, as he anticipates her forthcoming tour
With her last album out two years ago and the next one not out for possibly another two, Sinéad O'Connor describes her new EP as a "mini-album". It was recorded with the intention of getting her back doing live shows, and she has just confirmed a series of gigs in Europe - including one in Ireland - and the US for this summer. Once described as the only woman alive who could generate such massive publicity without having to take her clothes off, she now says she is "on the other side of recovery" and very much "in her prime". The EP, called Gospel Oak (which is also the name of a train station near her London home) features four new, self-composed songs led off by This Is To Mother You - a hymn-like ode to her baby daughter, Róisín. The songs are dedicated on the sleeve notes to "the people of Israel, Rwanda and Northern Ireland" and reveal a sense of gentleness and reconciliation in her lyric writing (she is now a Buddhist). All slow to midpaced, her understated vocals on the songs lend a lullaby feel to the EP and see her continuing to experiment with the sort of Celtic rhythms she used on her last album, Universal Mother (1995).
Saying that all the songs are written, primarily, to herself, This Is To Mother You has her comforting herself with the lines:
"All the pain that you have known
all the violence in your soul
all the `wrong' things you have done
I will take them from you when I come",
which pretty much sums up the dominant mood and mode of expression on the whole EP. I Am Enough For Myself has her proclaiming that she "doesn't need anything else" in a keening voice while Petit Poulet is written, obliquely, about the Rwandan crisis. "They speak French there, so I guess I wanted to write something which would be comforting to the children that went through the evil that happened there," she says of the song. The final track, 4 My Love, is about the situation in the North and of the line "So no longer be violent", she says; "what all the violence has done is shut a lot of people up who would be speaking out more if they could be sure it couldn't be misconstrued. People like me, for instance, who wouldn't be afraid to say we have a right to govern our own country as long as it's not taken to mean we believe in murder." Her return to the public fray, however overdue, will be limited by the amount of time she chooses to spend with her two children.
She was never one to bend to record company pressure or to overly exploit herself commercially - and despite her long absences from the music scene, she remains a figure of fascination for many in the public eye, far beyond that enjoyed/endured by other women of similar musical worth such as Björk, P.J. Harvey or Beth Gibbons of Portishead. If at times the media attention has made her life seem like a soap opera, it has to be remembered that she, almost uniquely, combines the qualities of intelligence, good looks and talent (she remains one of the voices of popular music) and while many latter-day icons may score higher marks in two out of three of those categories, none comes close in the headline-generating stakes. The stories are old and tired and barely worth repeating: from the supposed support of the IRA in her early days, her love/hate relationship with U2; her refusal to have the American anthem played before her gigs during the Gulf War; tearing up the Pope's photo on television; being booed at a Bob Dylan concert; pulling out of a much-vaunted appearance at the Peace Together concert; her poem to The Irish Times; her relationships; her views on the Catholic Church, religion, etc, etc. Whatever one's feelings about her actions/attitudes throughout the years, the question that has gone begging throughout her career is how did she then - and how does she now - measure up as a singer/songwriter if somehow her musical activities could be separated from everything else? The constant strand running through the criticism thrown at her over the years is that she should "shut up and concentrate on the music" - the implication being that people want nice melodies and harmonies out of her without any of the lyrical baggage. It's a non-starter, as she explains herself. "People are always saying `she should shut up and sing'. This amazes me. How can people shut up and sing?" For her, the emotional delivery and impact of her voice is intimately linked to the subject matter she is singing about. In this regard, it's perhaps no coincidence that her album of cover versions, Am I Not Your Girl (1992), has been her most poorly received work to date, while self-composed numbers like Fire On Babylon, Famine and Thank You For Hearing Me off Universal Mother have received the most critical acclaim. It's the old conundrum of trying to tell the dancer from the dance.
IN sheer musical terms, though, she has distinguished herself as being a prime force in progressing Irish rock music. This is the person who was using hip-hop rhythms and rap vocal inflections while U2 were still jamming with B.B. King. Her first release, The Lion And The Cobra (1987), signalled her out as a tough but sweetly-voiced singer - but it wasn't until her cover version of an obscure Prince song, Nothing Compares 2 U, reached number one in every available chart around the world in 1990 that she began to have the sort of high profile that at one stage threatened to destroy her. The accompanying album, I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got, saw the characteristic mix of personal/political/spiritual themes in her lyrics over a swirling Celtic rap backing. It wasn't until her fourth album, Universal Mother, that she began to relate her experience of abuse - "for me, that's where my career begins," she says. And her collaborations over the years, with acts as diverse as World Party (Karl Wallinger), Donal Lunny, Willie Nelson, MC Lyte, Karen Finlay, The The and Shane McGowan - she also used The Smiths' rhythm section as her backing band - have marked her down as an adventurous and enlightened musical spirit. Future plans include talk of a duet with Bono on the soundtrack to a Wim Wenders film called The End Of Violence and an appearance in Neil Jordan's film of Patrick McCabe's book, The Butcher Boy, where she plays the Virgin Mary. Her upcoming gigs should give some indication of her future musical direction, but if the new EP is anything to go by, redemption and regeneration seem to figure in her plans. But can we tell the singer from the songs?
The Gospel Oak EP is released next Monday by Chrysalis Records. Sinéad O'Connor, along with The Beautiful South, Ocean Colour Scene and Teenage Fanclub performs at The Castlegar Sports Ground, Galway on July 19th.