Monday 23 April 2018

Sinéad O’Connor: How About I Be Me (and You Be You)?

Helen Brown

Sinead O'Connor's new album, How About I Be Me (and You Be You)? is soft in tone, tough in purpose with the emotion in perfect check

A small detail of a long interview Sinéad O’Connor once gave about her deeply troubled life sticks with me. Describing herself as an eight-year-old child, removed from the custody of her mother who she believes to have been “born without the capacity for love”, she said she would lie on her bed all day “howling like a wolf”. Even at her most wounded and powerless, O’Connor saw herself as a strong creature, not to be messed with – just one separated from her pack.

And a wounded wolf was what the world saw in the compelling video for her 1990 breakthrough hit, Nothing Compares 2 U: an elfin face with a shaven head, grey eyes challenging the viewer with their raw vulnerability… and a voice that could travel from a snarl to a whimper and back in a syllable.

She’s continued to walk her own path, outwardly fearless although often lost. There have been four marriages, four children, ordination into the Tridentine priesthood, reported suicide attempts and a bipolar diagnosis. She has spoken out controversially on politics, religion and sexuality while wandering into a commercial wilderness with albums of reggae covers and melody-shy ponderings.

Her intensity never slackened but it lacked the songs to structure it. Recent headlines about another stay in hospital for depression following her on-again, off-again marriage last December (to a drug counsellor she met via Twitter then “frightened” by scoring drugs on their wedding night) made her seem more rackety than ever, yet somehow in all that chaos she’s made her best, most accessible record for years.

How About I Be Me (and You Be You)? opens with an infectiously simple and sunny love song, 4th and Vine, which sees O’Connor expressing girlish excitement at dressing up in a pink frock and some eyeliner to marry a man whose “love is serious”.

She follows this with a compassionate and gently melodic song about an optimistic junkie. “I don’t want to waste the life God gave me / And I don’t think that it’s too late to save me,” she sings. She is soft in tone, tough in purpose – keeping the emotion in perfect check.

Celebrity culture is called to account on VIP, while child abuse in the Roman Catholic Church is confronted with righteous anger and profound sorrow on Take Off Your Shoes. There’s a misstep with the album’s only cover – an overearnest reading of John Grant’s bleakly funny Queen of Denmark is stripped of humour. But on The Wolf is Getting Married we find a mature woman howling – however fleetingly – in happiness.

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