Theology Review by The Music Box

First Appeared in The Music Box , July 2007, Volume 14, #7

Written by Douglas Heselgrave

After spending years in a creative and personal wilderness, Sinead O’Connor finally has found a place to make her stand. In 1987, she came shrieking out of the starting gate with The Lion and The Cobra. Upon issuing her multi-million-selling effort I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got in 1990, it appeared as if there were nothing the diminutive Irish gal couldn’t do. O’Connor is a strong woman, a dedicated single mother, and an intuitive musician. She also is a brave soul, who never has been afraid to speak her mind. Consequently, there is much to admire about her work and persona. Unfortunately, like so many others who have achieved the limelight only to find it fickle and unforgiving, O’Connor began to publicly unravel after achieving her initial successes. Though the music she made in the intervening years often has been intimate, challenging, and worthwhile, a number of poor choices — and a ruthless media’s fascination with them — caused all but her hardcore fans to withdraw their support from her subsequent efforts.

For most people, the cracks in O’Connor’s facade initially began to show in 1992. During an appearance on Saturday Night Live, she sang an a cappella rendition of Bob Marley’s War and tore up a photo of the Pope to protest sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church. Two weeks later, she participated in a concert meant to pay tribute to Bob Dylan, where she was scheduled to perform I Believe in You, one of Dylan’s loveliest songs from his Christian period. Thwarted by hecklers, she silenced the backing band and angrily offered a reprise of her a cappella version of War. Since then, she briefly came out as a lesbian, overdosed on Valium, and has had several relationships end in public displays. She also rejected the church, only to become an ordained minister. On top of that, she has retired and resurfaced more times than The Who, and she has released albums that seemed to express an increasing level of hysteria and confusion.

In 2005, however, after experimenting with dance, new age, and trance and making a truly cringe-worthy foray into traditional Irish fare, the most unlikely suite of songs pointed the way toward her creative rebirth. Working with Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare in Bob Marley’s Tuff Gong studios, O’Connor crafted Throw Down Your Arms, a collection of classic reggae material on which she essentially recreated the hits of Lee "Scratch" Perry, Bob Marley, and Burning Spear. It was here that O’Connor revealed where her musical heart lay. Her impassioned delivery of old-style Biblical and Rastafarian songs of faith revealed a singer who not only had found joy in expressing her love for God but also had developed the strength to stand by that faith. For the first time in years, critics had good things to say about O’Connor’s work, despite the unusual and risky premise for the outing’s release.

There is even more riding on her new, two-disc set Theology. The title says it all. It is an album about God, and in today’s mainstream entertainment market, it certainly sounds like it should spell commercial and career suicide for O’Connor. (Think Bob Dylan, circa 1980). Yet, it is — without a doubt — the best record that she has released in well over a decade. Like Dylan, who also used Biblical imagery in his lyrics from the beginning of his career, O’Connor’s conversion makes sense in many ways. Her music always has expressed a search for peace, wholeness, truth, and unity with the universe, and it appears that she finally has found a vehicle for expressing her spiritual truths.

O’Connor’s version of Christianity is not the polite subject matter that is meant to be discussed over sandwiches and tea. It also isn’t all fire and brimstone. There is a darkness in these songs. Yet, her God emerges shapeless — being compassionate one minute, and taking human form, dancing like a lover in a Blake-ian vision, the next.

The most impressive thing about Theology is the pride, fury, and confidence that O’Connor communicates with her singing. Though she falls prey to the occasional affectations in her voice — which, for the record, have been present from the beginning — she now sounds completely connected to her muse. The material seems to flow effortlessly through her. It’s almost magical. In their passion and intent, her compositions resemble nothing more than the Old Testament’s Song of Solomon. These erotically charged hymns of devotion are expressed in the form of a dialogue between a bride and a bridegroom, and they seem to inform the whole of Theology. O’Connor is fearless in her explorations of the relationship between the divine and the human, and she never once pulls back from her trajectory. Most important, she never expresses her revelations in the form of dogmatic pronouncements or — what would have been worse, still — sentimental Sunday school verse. This is exciting new music of faith that should be given a chance, no matter what one’s own relationship with God and the idea of religion happen to be.

Both discs on Theology feature virtually the same songs. The first disc — the Dublin sessions — is acoustic and unplugged. Here, the tunes are intimate and touching — like campfire confidences and confessions. O’Connor’s singing is clear and unaffected, and her guitar playing, along with the simple accompaniments from second guitarist Steve Cooney, is just right for the material. Taken by itself, this opening salvo would be enough to make Theology a good, solid collection of music, but it is during the second half of the set — when O’Connor is accompanied by a full band — that her work really comes alive.

Starting with Something Beautiful, a wonderful song of praise, and finishing with a remake The Rivers of Babylon, an old reggae standard, Theology is a triumph from beginning to end. The band plays with the same passion of its leader, and it’s difficult to remember a recent recording that is as emotionally satisfying as this one. Some of the highlights include We People Who Are Darker than Blue — an old, Curtis Mayfield classic that has been re-imagined as a kind of bass-heavy, politically inclined, gospel tour-de-force — and the delicate If You Had a Vineyard. The only real dud on the set is a cover of I Don’t Know How to Love Him from Jesus Christ Superstar, though somehow even this indulgence is more successful and moving than it ought to be.

Theology is a welcome return-to-form from an artist who, for far too long, has been divorced from or unwilling to go to the source of her talent. With Theology, O’Connor has wrestled with her passions, her insecurities, and her misgivings, and she has emerged triumphant. Sinead O’Connor has written and performed songs of faith in an age that has little time for this kind of thing. However, as people who have followed her career are well aware, prudence and calculation never have been among O’Connor’s prime considerations. In today’s music scene, where rebellion itself is a career move, O’Connor is the real thing. Sincerity is an overused word, but this is a collection that shows a level of depth and maturity that has been a long time coming from O’Connor. Theology is a brave release that deserves as much attention it can muster.