Sinéad O’Connor remains a polarizing figure, in large part due to her appearance on Saturday Night Live over twenty years ago where she ended her performance by tearing up a picture of The Pope in protest of the revelations of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
When asked by Salon in a 2002 interview if she would change anything about that performance, she said, “Hell, no!”
To which I say, “You go, girl!”
She was way, way, way ahead of her time in calling attention to the horrific patterns of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church that emerged with greater and more disgusting detail as the years went on. Her act called attention to the longstanding reality that evil often masks itself in the cloth of righteousness. Given the damage inflicted by priests, bishops and cardinals on countless numbers of innocent children, I think her protest was mild in comparison.
I also admire her refusal to sing in any concert that opened with the playing of that country’s national anthem. This seriously pissed off the patriots in the U. S. A., leading that paragon of righteousness, Frank Sinatra, to threaten to “kick her ass.” Hmm. Did Sinatra want to kick John Lennon’s ass for singing, “Imagine there’s no countries?” Which act is more subversive?
All this noise and nonsense about someone expressing her personal views in a country that claims to support freedom of speech! Prior to all the hoo-hah, Sinéad had hit the big time with I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, featuring two of the most remarkable performances ever given by a female vocalist in “Nothing Compares 2 U” and “Three Babies.” After SNL, her commercial appeal was limited, a fact aggravated by curious musical choices and challenges in her personal life that always seemed to earn a more negative spin than the trials and tribulations of others in the public eye.
To borrow a phrase from Vonnegut, I really don’t give a “flying fuck in a rolling doughnut” about her personal life, nor any artist’s for that matter. I’m just not a gossipy kind of girl. The music is all that matters.
That said, one of the most common failures of any artist is the inability to achieve “negative capability.” Keats used the term to describe the ability of Shakespeare to allow the doubts and uncertainties of human and physical nature to simply exist without attempting to impose one’s personal views and values on them or try to fix them. This detachment is what allows the artist to discover and communicate truth and beauty. When the artist attempts to impose his or her “fix,” the art is overwhelmed by the personal presence of the artist, thus detracting from the art.
Sinéad O’Connor’s greatest artistic weakness has always been the tendency to overwhelm her listeners with too much personal stuff. Sometimes you listen to her and you feel like you’ve just left a group therapy session or an AA meeting. I admire the woman for her personal courage and for her passion, but have always been disappointed in the lack of consistency in her work.
So why am I reviewing her latest album a year after its release? The simple answer is that I love her voice. The more complex answer is that after completing the album, she canceled the supporting tour due to a serious breakdown and then rescheduled it for this year. I happened to catch the news that she’d released another single from the album on February 18, so here we are.
How About I Be Me (And You Be You)? surprisingly opens up with as light a song as she’s ever done, “4th and Vine,” a sort of upbeat reggae shuffle. Some reviewers have criticized the song for weak lyrics, particularly “Not that he’s no wuss/Girls, you know his love is serious,” but I think the reviewers are having a hard time believing that Sinéad O’Connor might have a sense of humor. The reference to a “buggy ride” has also been attacked as old-fashioned, but it sounds to me like the character singing the song is likely the kind of lower-middle-class woman who would think a buggy ride to her wedding (or through Central Park) would be romantic. I like the song, and I like it even more coming from Sinéad O’Connor, because I know that heavier stuff lurks in the background.
Sure enough, the next track is about a junkie. “Reason with Me” is sung as a first-person narrative, and I think the fact that Sinéad is playing a role other than herself makes her performance all the more effective. She delivers the first verse and chorus in the breathy version of her voice with little in the way of emotion, mirroring the junkie’s confession of various crimes in the form of a matter-of-fact, almost cheeky recitation, withholding all but superficial regret. When he or she tells us in the chorus, “I really want to mend my ways,” it sounds like typical junkie bullshit—precisely because Sinéad has maintained the character’s façade in her tone and delivery. That façade begins to crack in the second verse; Sinéad varies the delivery accordingly through sudden emphasis of a random word or a phrase before returning to the hypnotic baseline melody:
I’m the one who sits in the bathroom
I’m the one who doesn’t know how to have fun
I’m the one to smoke a mist all around me
‘Cos I don’t like no one around me
‘Cos if I love someone, I might lose someone.
We start to believe that this person may indeed want and benefit from human help, but by the end of the song, we’re still not sure. That ambiguity is what gives the song its power: Sinéad is allowing the situation to exist as is, with all its truth and lies, and has avoided imposing a resolution in the form of a “Save the Junkies” message. She allows the listener to wrestle with his or her conscience.
Negative capability, baby!
“Old Lady” appears to appropriately begin with the tinkle of a music box, but the song is actually about an adolescent imagining a future where her real feelings about a boy can be expressed without becoming the object of taunting and teasing. The quiet opening leads to a driving power pop beat where the narrator feels free to comment on the repression:
I even act like I don’t like him
Ignore him to spite him
But that’s only so I won’t smile at him
For everyone would know I would love him
And that’s so uncool
‘Cos it’s messing with all the rules
So when she wishes for what she considers “old age,” she sees it as divinely liberating, a place where her love will “make me laugh like an idiot, not be so serious.” It’s a delightful and surprisingly rich song told in few words with no interference from the narrator.
Ne-ga-tive Ca-pa-bil-i-ty! Yeah!
Unfortunately, Sinéad proves to be a novice at this negative capability stuff and it all comes crashing down in the righteous anger of “Take Off Your Shoes.” Message to Sinéad: “Hey! I think the Catholic Church is the epitome of religious hypocrisy, too. But all I hear is your anger! I don’t hear your meaning. You’re not motivating me into action, you’re just yelling! Read Emily Dickinson, for fuck’s sake!”
Tell all the truth but tell it slant,
Success in circuit lies,
Too bright for our infirm delight
The truth’s superb surprise;
As lightning to the children eased
With explanation kind,
The truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.
Sinéad recovers somewhat from her temporary lapse with the touching “Back Where You Belong,” a song that imagines what a dead soldier would sing to the son he left behind. It’s not as powerful an anti-war song as June Tabor’s version of Eric Bogle’s “No Man’s Land/Flowers of the Forest,” but it is sensitive without crossing the line into sentiment.
Sadly, the evil spirit released from the bottle of “Take Off Your Shoes” returns, and the rest of the album suffers from an abandonment of art and an embrace of various forms of self-indulgence. “The Wolf Is Getting Married” follows, an odd choice for the first single release. The problem I have with the song is that it sounds too much like a self-affirmation ritual, a paean to positive thinking used to convince herself that there are things to be thankful for. I’m sure there are, but I think showing us rather than telling us would have been more effective. “Queen of Denmark” is a John Grant song that can be best described as bitter and mean-spirited; the line “Why don’t you bore the shit out of somebody else?” pretty much sums up my feelings about this dreadful exercise in human finger-pointing. “Very Far from Home” doesn’t stop the slide into self-indulgence, as it’s pretty much an exercise in self-flagellation, something I’ve found never makes for a very successful relationship with a lover (I’ll take care of the flagellating, if you don’t mind.) “I Had a Baby” also falls flat, for if you need the sound of a laughing infant to prop up your song, it probably wasn’t a very good song to begin with. Compared to the passionate intensity of “Three Babies,” this song is pretty milquetoast.
The album ends with “V. I. P.” In this piece, Sinéad justifiably attacks fame-seeking missiles like Bono who follow the cameras and the money behind a guise of activism that’s really more noblesse oblige than motive-free, genuine concern for others. She also goes after the velvet rope photo-op star-worship mentality that I find so sickening about the Grammies and the Oscars. Once again, the problem is in the way she does it: the message is far too obvious and she leaves nothing for us to figure out by ourselves. Listen: Shakespeare never tells us that Macbeth is an asshole; it’s something that emerges through the human drama, allowing us to learn the truth for ourselves.
One more time, honey: Negative Capability! Tattoo it on your forearm or on your lover’s ass!
In the end, I have mixed feelings about How About I Be Me (And You Be You)? I loved hearing Sinéad’s voice again, and the songs where she acknowledges the intelligence of her listening audience are superb. If she could only channel some of her intense passion into artistic communication instead of banner waving, the quality of her music would improve a hundredfold, and she might have a lot more success trying to change the world that we both agree is in serious need of an overhaul.