An unexpectedly great later album from the controversial and provocative star.
It’s fair to say that Sinéad O’Connor has long been better known for her… erm… ‘interesting’ private life than her music – she’s still headline-worthy over three decades after her only real commercial success and it’s rarely her music that is written about. To be fair to those news stories, O’Connor herself has continually provoked attention with very public actions that seem designed to be newsworthy. The year leading up to the release of this album saw her advertising on Twitter for a boyfriend, marrying a respondent, splitting with him, reconciling, attempting suicide and being hospitalised: a hectic time by anyone’s standards, and so it was perhaps unsurprising that this album – her ninth, and the first in five years – rather struggled to be heard outside of the media circus. If, as the more cynical commentators tended to think, this flurry of headline-making activity was little more than a publicity drive by an artist who had long since lost the ability to create news simply by releasing a new record, then it probably backfired. Whatever the truth and whatever has been long going on in O’Connor’s life, there’s no denying that when she is at her best – and yes, that is far from being the case a lot of the time – she’s proved to be a remarkable talent. In a just world, this new LP wouldn’t have needed anything other than the music to sell it. As it was, the album came and went without many people even noticing.
That was a pity because this might be her finest work since those early recordings that briefly made her a star. There’s plenty here to recommend in a record that is a very personal collection of dark, sometimes passionate, sometimes cynical observations on love and morality. Some see her looking through the eyes of others – Reason with Me is a haunting tale of a junkie seeking redemption from the victims of his crime – and some are painfully vitriolic. Take Off Your Shoes is a bitter attack from the point of view of Christ on the Catholic Church (an old sparring partner for O’Connor) and its paedophile scandals – “I bleed the blood of Jesus over you/And over every fucking thing you do” spits O’Connor as the song opens. It’s a brutally savage track, showing that she’d lost none of her righteous fury in the two decades since her breakthrough. And that all comes through on the cover of John Grant’s Queen of Denmark, a brutally cynical tale of self-destruction and narcissism that could have been written for her, and closing track VIP, a prescient attack on celebrity culture and the stars – most specifically U2’s gobshite hypocrite supremo Bono – who have chased fame and influence, supported political monsters and kept silent on the Church’s scandals.
It’s not all bitter nihilism though. Some of the songs are surprisingly sweet – Old Lady is an upbeat story of a woman waiting for love to evolve from friendship, infectiously bouncy and with a genuine charm, while Back Where You Belong is a bittersweet tale of love and separation. Similarly, the album’s choice for a single, The Wolf Is Getting Married, is another up-tempo, joyful number – a chart hit in another, better universe. But we don’t live in that world any more.
In the end, this is a collection of songs about love and hate, regret and defiance that is -perhaps unsurprisingly from an artist who has lived her life in the glare of frequently sniggering headlights – raw, passionate and honest. And remarkably beautiful. It saw O’Connor having more positive press than she had received in a long time – and for her music, no less – but of course, she was quick to sabotage any sense of goodwill by almost immediately instigating an online war with Miley Cyrus by implying that she was a manipulated sex object; badmouthing Prince (and then back peddling); converting from Catholicism (where she was an ordained priest of a breakaway sect) to Islam and immediately calling any non-Muslims “disgusting”; changing her name (but not her recording name) twice; and generally continuing to behave in an erratic manner that often seemed to be as much about a need for attention as anything, with a cycle of outrageous statement, denial or semi-apology and then more outrage. It has long been hard maintaining any sympathy for her, no matter what demons are driving her behaviour and however valid some of her arguments (I mean, she wasn’t wrong about the Pope, was she?) might be.
It’s a pity because I think O’Connor’s career in general and this album in particular probably deserve better than to be approached with all the external baggage that follows her around, as much as that tends to overshadow anything she does musically. As difficult as it might be, I’d suggest looking past the media-created personality and focus on what really matters. If you allow tabloid mockery and eccentric behaviour to get in the way of the great music on this disc, you’ll be losing out.
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