Over the years Sinéad O’Connor has been one of the most controversial figures in popular music. Despite the enormous popularity of her breakthrough hit Nothing Compares 2 U, a single that reached number one around the world in 1990, she will seemingly be remembered for ever more as “that bald chap who tore up the picture of the Pope.”
It is unfortunate that her actions appear to have spoken louder than her music, but it certainly got her noticed. As well as that incident, she also ‘came out’ out as a ‘dyke’ and then retracted the statement. And who could forget when she was ordained as a Catholic priest and assumed the name Mother Bernadette Mary?
There always seemed to be a point to her actions; they were not just done to shock or self-promote. The Pope incident was to draw attention to the Vatican’s complicity, as she saw it, in the sexual abuse of children. What is often overlooked is the reason that she was able to do this on American Television, on no lesser show than Saturday Night Live, an American Institution. Talent.
If this appearance was to become a defining moment, it’s worth remembering that she’d already created a place in the hearts and minds of the public for different reasons two years earlier. The genesis of the SNL boiling point can be traced back to two teardrops and a masterful reworking of a little known song by a musical mammoth. Penned by Prince, and eventually artistically owned by O’Connor thanks to her staggering performance, Nothing Compares 2 U became a global hit.
John Maybury’s video was simplistic, but enormously effective. Focused on O’Connor’s face for the duration, it made for uncomfortable yet compelling viewing. As she uttered the lines “all the flowers that you planted, Mama in the back yard, all died when you went away”, two tears began to stream down her face. It confirmed the sincerity of the performance and gave the song palpable potency. Once seen, it was impossible to hear the song without the image of Sinéad O’Connor crying springing to mind.
Unsurprisingly it struck a chord with the public, and it forced O’Connor and her latest album I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got towards a wider audience; O’Connor was on top of her game, and I Do Not Want… was a critical and commercial success. Coming back to the reissued album now, it is hard to find fault with it. Times may have changed, but it still sounds fresh, exciting, and incredibly moving. This Sinéad O’Connor still had a fire in her belly and a willingness to push herself.
The first words of the album “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I can not change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference” were a mission statement, a show of strength in the face of adversity. With God apparently on her side and a profound sense of self-belief, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got is emotional, forceful and poignant.
Nothing Compares 2 U, of course, set the emotional tone of an album shot through with loss and honesty. The Last Day Of Our Acquaintance is thematically similar to it, in that it deals with the loss of a loved one, this time in a particularly messy divorce. It lays O’Connor’s heart and soul bare.
The Emperor’s New Clothes is almost a sister song to Mandinka with its White Lines aping choppy funk intro, indie-like guitars and light touch of production. At its heart, we find Sinéad trying to make amends, and trying to explain her behaviour. “He thinks I just became famous, and that’s what messed me up, but he’s wrong, how could I possibly know what I want, when I was only 21?” she sings before reasserting herself and standing up for what she believes in. “I will live by my own policies, I will sleep with a clear conscience, I will sleep in peace, maybe it sounds mean, but I really don’t think so” might not sound like lines from a hit single but there they are making a mockery of her plea for help from God. It would appear that she hardly needs him at all.
That said, she’s also conscious that such displays of strength and bloody-mindedness can be used against her, something she explores on the only real rock track here. You Cause as Much Sorrow finds her stating “I never said I was tough, that was everyone else, so you’re a fool to attack me, for the image that you built yourself.” On the one hand she was strong and forthright, she always had something to say, and when she said it she really didn’t much care what anyone thought, but here she was experiencing love and loss and pain, exposing herself as a vulnerable woman, but one who can stand on her own two feet.
Always one for political statements – comments about the IRA had made her few friends – Black Boys On Mopeds is a focused and damning statement on policing in England. It has dated due to the mention of Margaret Thatcher, but lines such as “It’s the home of police who kill blacks boys on mopeds” still seem particularly relevant in light of the G20 mess and the de Menezes case. “These are dangerous days, to say what you feel is to dig your own grave” also calls to mind today’s threats to freedom of speech and the right to protest. O’Connor may have been speaking about a different time and a different leader, but change Thatcher for Brown or Blair and the song would still have a prophetic resonance.
I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, the title track, closes the album. This ethereal solo from O’Connor, steeped in reverb, sounds as if she’s giving praise in an empty church readying herself for the coming challenges. As with all the songs here, emotion is to the fore. The naturalistic recording picks up her intakes of breath and the sound of her mouth moving, making it feel as if she is in the room with you relating her journey of uncertain but confident self-discovery. It would appear that she’s aware that what comes next will change her and maybe not for the better as she sings “That this navy blue bird was me, I returned a paler blue bird.” The furore that was just over the horizon would affect her. Whether it dulled her entirely is open to debate, although she never attained such heights as she did with this career highlight.
A bonus disc full of rarities and b-sides appears with the reissue, but it seems almost peripheral when coupled with such a spellbinding and beautiful piece of work. The previously unreleased cover of John Lennon‘s Mind Games is worth checking out though, as O’Connor breathes considerable life into the song. I’m Stretched On Your Grave gets the remix treatment, adding a great bass line, but also messing with the original drum beat sample – and how can you mess with Funky Drummer? Some days this will sound better than the original album version, but not on many.
The live versions of Troy and I Want Your Hands On Me are perfect, showing that not only could she send shivers down your spine with her studio recordings but that she had no problem doing it on stage too. That she could be so emotional in her delivery with very few histrionics is something that today’s modern singers could learn from. Every X-Factor wannabe should be given a copy of this album.
So there you have it; a classic album that still sounds vital today. We live in hope that O’Connor will soon replicate it as voices (both politically and vocally) as pure and beautiful as hers are all too rare.