Over the course of her almost 25-year career, Irish songstress Sinéad O’Connor has courted as much controversy as she has won critical acclaim.
In her 20s, she was painted as the enfant terrible of contemporary pop and she’s lived a life that the tabloids have relished: an ongoing crusade against the oppression, misogyny and homophobia of the Catholic Church, a brief period during which she declared she was done with men and announced she was a lesbian, not to mention much-publicised marital woes and mental health issues.
Now 45, age has thankfully not dimmed O’Connor’s personal or musical tenacity and courage. As she’s grown older, the press has also, rather predictably, grown lazier, nowadays more often caricaturing her than respecting her for her deeply held beliefs and resolute outspokenness on issues such as religion, women’s rights, gay rights and child abuse.
O’Connor has never been the sort of woman one would describe as ‘comfortable,’ either in terms of the music she makes or the self she presents and views she expresses.
Despite finding commercial success with the Prince-penned ballad ‘Nothing Compares 2 U,’ she’s more a musical eccentric than she is a classic pop star and, as such, her music defies easy categorisation.
She fits no single genre neatly or easily and that has never been more evident than on this, her first studio album since 2007’s double album, Theology.
In recent months, she’s again garnered press for all the wrong reasons, namely her mania-fuelled blog posts and an impetuous Las Vegas marriage that lasted mere days, but what so often gets lost, amidst all the controversial tweets and tabloid headlines, is the mere fact of O’Connor’s extraordinary talent.
The musically diverse How About I Be Me (And You Be You)? is a stunningly good set of 10 songs, nine of them self-penned originals. For perhaps the first time in her career, O’Connor has expertly harnessed every single one of her disparate influences to considerable effect.
She’s crafted songs that run the gamut from the Afro-infused love letter, ‘4th and Vine,’ to the achingly sad junkie’s lament, ‘Reason With Me’ and the hymnal but splenetic ‘VIP,’ in which she quietly but furiously admonishes Bono, a noted Irish Catholic, for his refusal to speak out against systemic child abuse by priests in Ireland.
First single, ‘The Wolf Is Getting Married’ is gentle but powerful, a song that expresses both delight at the possibility of love and the unerring fear that it might eventually all go awry. The song, both in title and lyrics, was inspired by an Arab expression that roughly translates to mean “a break in the clouds.” It’s a joyful, beautiful song that’s accompanied by a great film clip that is much performance art as it is a music video.
20 years after controversially tearing up a photograph of the Pope on US television show Saturday Night Live, she’s still filled with vitriol for the hypocrisy and oppressiveness of the Catholic Church, evidenced on ‘Take Off Your Shoes,’ a song apparently written from what she described as “the stand-point of the Holy Spirit with an AK-47 rifle on the train on the way to the Vatican.”
Musically, it’s fairly simple: it starts off lo-fi and slowly builds to something that is at once eminently powerful and quietly menacing, O’Connor opening with ‘I bleed the blood of Jesus over you / And over every fucking thing you do’ and culminating with a final dark observation: ‘If you believed at all in your breviary / If you believed even in just the ghost of me / You wouldn’t now be so surprised to see me.’
It’s quintessential O’Connor: hurt, angry, blisteringly sad and unquestionably complicated. She is, of course, an artist who constantly runs the risk of having her rhetoric derail her message; she’s frequently as self-defensive as she is self-lacerating and, similarly, as passionate as she is impassioned. But, frankly, given the treatment she’s received over the years from the press, who can really blame her?
Interestingly enough, despite the many fine self-penned songs on this album, perhaps its greatest moment of synchronicity and resonance comes in the form of a cover version of former The Czars frontman John Grant’s ‘The Queen of Denmark.’ Its lyrics are sardonic, slyly witty and also heartbreakingly self-loathing. That O’Connor identifies closely with them is unmistakable and heart-rending:
She delivers the song with extraordinary gusto, her voice rising in time with the music, her tone stronger and darker as the music itself turns black and blacker still, unleashing a maelstrom of emotions, every word or verse an indictment or criticism of self, of suffering, of loneliness and deep despair.
It’s very much a song sung from the belly of the beast, the bellowing breakdown and resurrection of a woman desperate for something more than the brokenness, despair and disappointment that fills her.
That is the greatest irony of all: for all of its self-examination and self-exasperation, for all of its political commentary, this is largely an album that deals with the subject of love – of wanting it, of fearing it, of feeling it, of fleeing from it and of longing for it.
Yes, O’Connor flails and wails, but she rejoices, too, and it gladdens one’s heart to hear it.