How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?
One Little Indian
When an artist grabs headlines for something outside of their musical career, it's all too often the case that they also have an album to sell. That's the situation the Irish singer-songwriter and perennial loose cannon Sinead O'Connor has found herself in recently.
But in her case, even the most passionate cynic would be reluctant to connect the dots. The shaven-headed singer's ninth album has appeared just a month after she took to Twitter with pleas for help while apparently gripped by suicidal thoughts. The revelations came amid what appeared to be one of the most turbulent marriages in history, to a drug counsellor whom she met through the internet. Publicly splitting and reuniting twice in their first two months of marriage, at the time of writing, they are apparently back together.
The timing is particularly lousy, because How About I Be Me is perhaps the artist's strongest collection of songs since her late 1980s/early 1990s heyday. The last decade largely saw O'Connor breaking away from her rock/pop roots, with albums that veered between reggae (Throw Down Your Arms), Irish folk (Sean-Nós Nua) and hymn-like songs (Theology).
Each influence graces this release too, but they are bound together with a sound and energy that evokes 1990's monumentally successful I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got, which spawned the career-making single Nothing Compares 2 U.
The singer may already be regretting the opening track, 4th and Vine. On the breezy reggae-tinged tune, O'Connor sings "I'm going down to the church / On 4th and Vine / I'm gonna marry my love / We're gonna be happy for all time". Autobiographical or otherwise, the singer's joyful ode to love and commitment makes strange listening in light of recent events. The lead single The Wolf Is Getting Married appears to throw up another red flag, however. O'Connor claims she took the title from a Muslim taxi driver in London, who told her the saying describes, in parts of the Arab world, rays of sunlight appearing through grey clouds. Whatever the case, it's exactly the kind of blissful, utterly accomplished pop that brought her to the world's attention 25 years ago.
Not surprisingly, the album also sees the devoutly religious artist making not just pot shots, but a full-on assault against her greatest adversary: the Vatican. It features two songs directly inspired by 2009's Murphy Report - the Irish government's investigation into institutionalised child abuse in the country's Catholic schools, and the ensuing cover up. On VIP she attacks other high-profile Irish acts (who remain nameless) for, as she believes, failing to join her in condemning the church. In the slow lament, she notes the Irish artists of old who willingly accepted exile for speaking out against injustice, and compares them with today's coddled stars "gorged upon what devils feed, in the shallow form of MTV". The gothy Take Off Your Shoes sees her pouring equal amounts of pity and hate on the abusers, and features the record's finest vocal, verging towards the controlled shrillness of Kate Bush or Fever Ray.
O'Connor rarely masks her messages in metaphor, or simply lets the mood of the song do the talking. Instead, she just says exactly what she means. It's an approach that many socially conscious artists try to avoid, lest they be labelled "preachy" - but as an ordained priest herself, O'Connor would probably take it as a compliment. Her direct approach produces mixed results on the album's only cover. The US singer John Grant's indie hit Queen of Denmark is a hilarious retaliation on a former lover, but the song loses most of its humour when met with O'Connor's comparatively stony delivery.
As well as covering almost all of the musical bases from throughout her career, this album shows an emotional range that few other musicians could contemplate. If it weren't for the singer's personal issues, How About I Be Me would give the impression of an artist with greater self-confidence now than at any point throughout her career.
The truth may not be as simple, but that doesn't make the record any less of an achievement.
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