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About Sinead O'Connor
The truly great songwriters realize that what has already been said is not enough. They create unique emotional snapshots - musical testaments to the indomitability of the human spirit - and challenge the status quo. Most importantly, through their work they give the rest of us heart to go on.
It seemed so unlikely that the stultifying atmosphere of 1970’s Ireland - dominated by church, patriarchy and tribute bands -would bring forth such an artist, but sometimes the most arid soil produces the most spectacular blooms. When Sinead O’Connor first appeared on the scene thirty years ago nobody could quite believe what he or she were seeing and hearing. Still a teenage waif, nurturing herself on Dylan and Bowie, she nevertheless seemed to have arrived fully formed - possessed of prodigious song writing skills, a soaring, spectral voice and a tragic back-story to draw upon. She was both a connection to her country’s dusty, mystical past - she referenced WB Yeats on her first album and was named after the wife of Ireland’s first president (and delivered at birth by his son) - and a punk iconoclast who seemed like a violent break from that same past. It was her heart stopping voice that really set her apart however. Whether on the crunching new wave rocker Mandinka or her tearstained, multiplatinum-selling version of Prince’s Nothing Compares 2 U - it rang out like a clarion call and won her millions of fans. Throughout the 1990’s and 2000’s she would fearlessly cross musical genres, reimagining standards in classic jazz, Irish folk and Jamaican roots. Her visceral live performances set new standards of feminine intensity in rock music. She spoke truth to power and paid the price but time brought vindication and as the years passed her lore has only grown. She remains the most iconic Irish artist in history.
Fitting then, that in this her thirtieth anniversary in the music business, Sinead would return with an album that is both one of the artistic high points of her storied career and a worthy successor to 2012’s rapturously received How About I Be Me (And You Be You)? Infusing the spirit of funky blues with a fresh exploration the age-old theme of romantic love I’m Not Bossy, I’m The Boss is a tour de force and signals a new confidence in song writing for an artist who was until recently perhaps more renowned as a vocalist.
Aptly for an artist who has always done things her own way the record begins with the joyfully anthemic How About I Be Me? This is the only autobiographical number on the record (Sinead says, “These days I don’t write autobiographical songs, beginning with the last album and continuing with this one I write character songs - these are characters that don’t in any way represent my own personal experience”) and it was originally recorded in a reggae version some time ago but “literally missed the post” to be included on Sinead’s last record - it was released only as a single in Jamaica. Lyrically it deals with the fallout from the controversy following a series of articles, which Sinead wrote in an Irish newspaper discussing her single status in witty, sometimes explicit, terms. The title is a jab at those critics who sniped at her openness and, most damningly of all, missed the humor of the whole exercise. “There is a tendency, particularly in the sexually repressed Irish media, to make anyone who is in anyway different appear crazy. That’s where the title of this track came from,” Sinead explains.
The title of the record, which was produced by long-time collaborator John Reynolds, was originally going to be The Vishnu Room. This is also one of the standout tracks on the album, an intensely vulnerable, intimate conversation with a longed-for man. “The character is like a bride who has locked herself in the bathroom on the night of the wedding”, Sinead explains. “She is frightened to come out of the bathroom because she is shy about making love with the male character, who has been disdainful of her shyness.
She is frightened because she adores the ground he walks on and she is afraid she won’t be hot enough. She is asking will he hold onto her until she’s not frightened.”
Dense Water Deeper Down was originally recorded for 2003’s double-sided ‘She Who Dwells…’ but Sinead had always wanted to rearrange and chop the song. “I wanted to pare it down and make it tighter. It kind of slipped through the cracks and I always knew it had potential to be a great pop song”, Sinead says. “The character in this song is lying in bed, fantasizing about a guy and romantically engaging with her pillow. ‘Nuff said”
Kisses Like Mine, a humorous and sensual song of mischief and sex, follows on from Dense Water. “I wanted to make this very much a pop album”, Sinead explains. “This character is a slutty woman explaining to a man that she’s more likely to behave like a man when it comes to commitment than he may be happy with. I was very thinking of the (fu**ing great) song The Wanderer by Dion when I wrote this. It’s kind of a female version, I hope.”
Your Green Jacket, sounds like a watchman in the night, longing for a day he knows will never come. It’s a romantic swoon of a number and continues this particular phase of the album’s sequencing. Sinead explains: “The character in this song knows that she can never have this man who she profoundly worships. She knows that she will never be his woman. In her longing to be making love with him one day she finds his jacket. She draws it close to her and relates to it as if it were him, which is not to say that she has sex with it, in case anyone is worried. She kisses it and smells it and gives it all the hugs and love and sweet talk she’ll never get to give to him. The song is the sweet talk; it’s a beautiful and very feminine private moment.”
The exuberant, percussive stomp of The Voice Of My Doctor combines an edgy black humor with Sinead’s usual scathing lyrical honesty and marks the beginning of the album’s thematic change. “The song is inspired by a painting” Sinead says. “The character here is a woman who has been duped into sleeping with a very charming bullshitter who has in this moment told her that he is, in fact, married. The song is her response. Hopefully the humor comes from the character remembering that she had been warned by her very own doctor, who loves her dearly, that she should be careful not to be seduced by those less intelligent than herself.”
Undoubtedly one of the dramatic highlights of the album is the spare and desolate Harbour, a song which shares its title with a collaboration Sinead made with US rocker Moby, but the themes of which are quite different. “This is part of a series of conversation pieces”, Sinead explains. “The character is an un-fathered woman. The male character has asked her to explain some marks he found on her. The song is her explanation.”
The nimble chord changes of James Brown bring us to possibly the most infectious track on the album. This is two and half minutes of pure joyous funk and Sinead’s voice - replete with urgent whispers and sexy yelps - as you have never heard it before. “The character here is an extremely naughty woman”, she says, “who is talking about extremely naughty things, which are not fit for discussion except in extremely adult company.”
8 Good Reasons is a song that at first listen seems to fall outside of the album’s overarching theme of love but in fact combines the record’s romanticism with an excoriating criticism of the business end of music. “This character is the same female we’ve heard from earlier in Your Green Jacket and The Vishnu Room and will hear from then in later songs.
She is singing and will be singing to the same male character who is represented in this song as being the ‘ninth good reason’ for her to stick around on planet earth.”
With Take Me To Church the romantic mood of the female character seems to change. Sinead explains: “The character has had a profoundly distressing experience with the man of her dreams from which she is ultimately able to not only salvage herself but give birth to herself, coming to the conclusion, “I am only one I should adore.” While dealing with a painful subject Sinead has been dexterous in that the song is ultimately joyous. She explains: “I have to make an admission here. I toyed with the sequencing at the last minute here and I got the chronology wrong in terms of representing the emotional journey of the female character we’ve heard from in the conversation series so far. In fact this song should follow Where Have You Been? when anyone sets it into his or her playlists. It was too late to change it by the time I realized.
So let’s discuss Where Have You Been? first. The reason this is important is because these last three songs on the record mark the conclusions - in every sense of the word - of those conversations.” In Where have you been?, the penultimate track, the male character has become, in the female character’s mind, a more sinister figure, a man whose eyes turn black when he’s making love. This is one of the vocal highlights of the album, with Sinead’s emblematic wail soaring through the melody. “This song marks the painful maturing of the female character in the conversation series, from dreaming girl to wise woman. It therefore can’t be discussed in brief terms. It is the most important song in the conversation series. The female character asks a question of herself”, Sinead explains. “Her experience with the male character has frightened her and she has fled. She doesn’t know if she is crazy for being afraid of him. She is trying to make sense of her experience. In verse two and three he is likened to two other male characters she has had similar experiences with - a prince whose eyes turned white and a friend of the prince, who spikes (her) smoke.” Sinead continues: “Once I saw a private detective on The Oprah Winfrey Show. He was there to give advice to girls and women on getting themselves out of dangerous situations, such as the trunks of cars. He said the number one most important thing a female should know is that if that if you feel fear around a person or persons or situations, even if you think you think you’re crazy for feeling afraid, and you can’t make sense of why you feel afraid you must trust your fear and get out of there. In other words he was saying if you find yourself frightened it’s for a damn good reason. In verse three the narrator is that detective.”
From pain perhaps does come, if one is lucky, maturity. In Streetcars, the final track on the album, this female character arrives at a difficult but necessary set of conclusions about the phantoms of romantic love. Sinead says: “This is the last in the conversation series. She is talking to him. She has concluded from the reality of her experience with this man, who she had worshipped, that safety is not just physical but emotional and spiritual, and that love and desire are two painfully different things. She is stunned to find inside herself the knowledge that if she were dying, she would not want him with her. She realizes that what will make her happy is not simply wild passion, which, on its own, is like a bird in the air with wings and no feet. When the character sings of dwelling beneath the desert she is singing about the biblical idea that the desert is where God is found, so that in her most profoundly painful moment of growth she is solidifying an ancient relationship with The Holy Spirit, and putting herself deeply under the protection of that spirit. In or on all of my albums I like to have a reference to Psalm 91, which speaks of being under the protection of the most high.”
And so a cathartic, uplifting, spiritual note on which to close a collection of pop songs whose simplicity belies their rich emotional resonances. This is Sinead O’Connor at the peak of her powers; a soft girl instead of a warrior queen, an authentic voice cutting through the manufactured dross, a songwriter first and foremost. And still, as she begins her fourth decade in the business, one of the most original, emotional and spirited voices in all of music.