Few newcomers have burst onto the scene with quite as much impact as this amazingly talented — and equally bewildering — Dubliner. With masterful ability to switch gears between the delicate and the pompous or the direct and the ambiguous, O’Connor piles bits of hard rock, funk, ’70s-style spaciness and Celtic traditionalism into her self-produced debut album. Delivering deliberately vague lyrics that manage to at least sound poetic, she wails, shrieks, whispers, croons, snarls and bellows with the skill and confidence of a veteran. Although The Lion and the Cobra. doesn’t display much sophistication in the way of musical skills — the songs are pretty basic — her creativity and expressiveness are quite impressive. It wouldn’t hurt if she did lighten up a bit, but it’s rare to hear such a young artist (20 when the LP was recorded) so clearly in control; if the six-and-a-half- minute “Troy” sounds slow and laborious, she probably wanted it that way.
As grand an artistic and commercial success as her debut was, O’Connor was just warming up. I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got., again self-produced, dwarfs its predecessor in terms of creative ambition and achievement. Amazingly, this harrowingly personal testament to the tumult in her life sold two million copies in its first month of release, largely on the strength of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” ironically one of the record’s weakest efforts. Again refusing to be typecast, O’Connor makes a warm orchestral bed for “Three Babies,” delivers the otherwise a cappella “I Am Stretched on Your Grave” over a clattering hip-hop beat, conjures up catchy pop-rock for “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” gathers thickly chugging electric guitars for “Jump in the River” and sings “Black Boys on Mopeds” — a topical indictment of English hypocrisy — as acoustic folk. But such diversity is no impediment to the album’s overall impact. Unified by the razor-sharp intensity of her lyrics and the staggering power of her vocals, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. is an absolute masterpiece.
Having gotten it, however, O’Connor demonstrated just how much she didn’t want it. Her subsequent career has been a blur of miscalculation, misbehavior, confusion, confession and obfuscation, a troubled time with more miseries than victories. In the midst of absurd public controversies that mingled politics, religion and personal eccentricities into a fever blister of animosity (culminating in her being booed offstage at a 1992 Bob Dylan tribute concert in the wake of her televised papal picture shredding), O’Connor dropped a real bombshell: Am I Not Your Girl? A straight-faced big-band collection of pop, jazz and other standards O’Connor explains as “the songs that made me want to be a singer,” the surprising sidestep showcases her basic vocal skills more than any interpretive artistry. Although she turns in credible enough performances (except maybe on “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” which wasn’t a good idea on any level), O’Connor brings no real panache or imagination to the effort. “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” “Why Don’t You Do Right?” and “I Want to Be Loved by You” have all been sung better numerous times; regardless of the song’s likely significance to the vocalist’s similarly troubled life, O’Connor’s delicate rendering of “Success Has Made a Failure of Our Home” (a Loretta Lynn song previously essayed by Elvis Costello) pales against the garish arrangement and is eventually overcome by her far more passionate delivery of the appended “Am I not your girl?” coda. The only track that truly soars is “Scarlet Ribbons,” hauntingly sung against nothing but a tin whistle and uileann pipes. If only the album had stopped there…But the band immediately strikes up a jolly instrumental encore of “Argentina,” a sure sign of artistic insolence. That time-waster leads somewhere even worse, into a quiet anti-clerical rant, a bizarre speech in which the oddly hinged star announces “So, yeah, I am angry, but I’m not full of hate; I’m full of love.”
Calling Universal Mother “a prayer from Ireland,” O’Connor opens her fourth album with a fragment from a 1970 speech against patriarchy by Germaine Greer and includes her own loopy theorizing, spoken over a snappy jazz-hop track, about what she believes to be the damage caused by Ireland’s lost history. Little else in this largely acoustic and wholly poetic statement about God, womanhood and her native culture is quite so direct. In this handsome and uncomforting quilt, a one-guitar folk rendition of Nirvana’s “All Apologies” joins a lullaby (“My Darling Child”) written by Irish music veteran Phil Coulter, an a cappella snippet (“Am I a Human?”) sung by O’Connor’s young son and an unprepossessing batch of originals. Universal Mother has the anxious enthusiasm of a high school notebook: besides touching numerous topical signposts in the grooves, O’Connor fills the booklet with poetry, dedications and endless expressions of appreciation to all and sundry. Obsessing on her inspirations, O’Connor hasn’t much left to say about her actual obsessions in the songs. So while “Red Football” issues a prickly veiled protest against Ireland’s anti-abortion laws, she mostly professes love, gratitude and grief, blames God for everything under the sun (in the techno-grooved “Fire on Babylon”) and then announces (in “All Babies”) that “All babies are crying / For no-one remembers God’s name.” That’s a lot to ponder and not enough to enjoy.
After a three-year layoff veiled as a music-biz retirement (neither her first nor last), O’Connor returned with an unassuming six-song EP, Gospel Oak. She relinquished the production reins to longtime drummer John Reynolds, the ex-husband and father of her firstborn who was the object of scorn in many of her earlier love-gone- bad diatribes. (Irish folk icon Donal Lunny produced her live rendition of the traditional “He Moved Through the Fair.”) Despite venomous lines like “All the pain that you have known / All the violence in your soul” (from the soft- spoken charmer “This Is to Mother You”) and “Your rage is like a fist in my womb” (in the surprisingly mild “This Is a Rebel Song”), O’Connor trades in youthful contempt for mature acceptance. Tin whistles and rolling drums abound in “I Am Enough for Myself” and “Petit Poulet,” where she resigns herself to the fact that “There isn’t any answer to the question / You only learn to live with it.” Besides the slightly unsettling chanted vocals in “4 My Love,” this is quaint and uplifting stuff. She’s still a little perplexed, perplexing and pissed off (the dedication to “the people of Israel, Rwanda and Northern Ireland” proves that), but obviously happier and more content. Still, her anguished wail is sorely missed.
The best-of has hits and misses alike but is of particular interest for its three otherwise non-album tracks: “Heroin,” her first recorded effort from the Edge’s score for the 1986 film The Captive; “Empire,” a collaboration with Bomb the Bass; and “You Made Me the Thief of Your Heart,” a moving contribution to the In the Name of the Father soundtrack.
Employing a parade of illustrious producers including Adrian Sherwood, Brian Eno, Dave Stewart and Wyclef Jean, Faith and Courage is O’Connor’s most conventional album yet; that it also contains some of the most powerful, full-bodied music of her career speaks volumes about her versatility and resilience. The hip-hop beats are back with a vengeance, this time underscoring all-out pop-rock and dance tracks. An adult-contemporary luster that would make Annie Lennox drool enrobes “Jealous,” “The State I’m In” and other tracks, but the abundance of fresh ideas and O’Connor’s winning (yes, winning) personality protect the arrangements from mundanity. Her lyrics are as autobiographical as ever, but helpfully more self-aware than in the past. “I know that I have done many things / To give you reason not to listen to me” she admits in “The Lamb’s Book of Life,” one of the album’s few moody, imposing numbers, and then demonstrates in song after song why she still deserves attention. “Daddy I’m Fine,” with its jubilant bounce, is a reassuring anthem for independent women that for once refuses to skirt the alt-queen’s unique sex appeal. “Got my hair shaved off and my black thigh boots / I stand up tall with my pride upright,” she sings. “And I feel real hot when my makeup’s right / I get sexy underneath them lights.” What’s this? Sinéad, poster girl for piety, comes down off her high horse for a romp in the proverbial hay? It’s a striking statement on a striking album.
Faith and Courage, unfortunately, proved to be a detour on O’Connor’s ethereal path — Sean-Nós Nua picks up right where Gospel Oak left off. A respectful collection of traditional Irish folk songs, the album is awash with accordion, flute and violin, with O’Connor’s lulling vocals floating on the serene stream. A let-down only in that it retreats further from the intensity of her more contemporary work, the album nevertheless captures her grace and stunning voice in forthright earthiness. (And still maintains a fuck-it-all rebelliousness: a modern-day Irish pop singer tackling the crusty and musty “Molly Malone” is akin to, say, Courtney Love covering “She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain” without irony.)
The absurdly titled (deep breath, now) She Who Dwells in the Secret Place of the Most High Shall Abide Under the Shadow of the Almighty is an odds-and-ends anthology coupled with a 2002 concert in Dublin, both of which display the many stages of O’Connor’s eclectic career. She covers the B-52’s (“Ain’t It a Shame”), ABBA (“Chiquita”) and Aretha Franklin (“Do Right Woman”), works with other artists (Massive Attack on “It’s All Good” and Asian Dub Foundation on “1000 Mirrors”) and dabbles in old-school ska, post-modern country and everything in between. The live disc puts most of the weight on her Celtic folk side, but finds room for stirring versions of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” “Thank You for Hearing Me” and “The Last Day of Our Acquaintance.” Since this was announced as O’Connor’s farewell to the recording world, the future creative adventures of this tricky she-devil with angel eyes are at present unknown.