Published April 24, 2014
I do have an Irish half, and there was a period in my pre-teens to early teens when I tried to learn all I could about both my Irish and French origins. I came to learn that the concept of ethnicity is ludicrous from a biological standpoint because European history is the story of one war after another, and along with the pillaging there was plenty of raping and garden-variety fucking. From a cultural standpoint, though, there are plenty of differences between and within the various countries and regions, as is true in the diverse states and cities of the USA. Although generalizations are dangerous, I think many of the key differences between French and Irish culture arise from the historical circumstances that allowed France to become one of the great powers of Europe, while the Irish spent centuries under the thumb of the British. Today, the French still think they’re pretty hot shit despite evidence to the contrary, while the Irish are still trying to figure out their place in the world. The French are more engaged with that world, due to a combination of history and geography; the Irish inhabit a relatively remote island several steps removed from the European continent and collective psyche. Another important difference is that the French really don’t give a crap about religion while Ireland proper has been under the control of the Catholic Church for centuries.
When you interact a lot with Irish people, two qualities become more apparent than others. The Irish have a fabulous sense of humor, especially in group settings. The other quality is that it doesn’t take much to piss off the Irish: there is a burning sense of injustice in the Irish soul that creates a durable chip on the Irish shoulder. Both my grandparents were Irish immigrants who joined other family members who had planted themselves in San Francisco after the 1906 quake, and they brought both the humor and the chip with them (and in my grandmother’s case, the religion). There were times during Irish family gatherings when we’d be singing and laughing until the tears flowed, then a few minutes later everyone was locked in red-faced debate, particularly on any subject that touched upon politics, religion or The Troubles.
Sinéad O’Connor is definitely on the angry side of the ledger, a character trait that has made her the center of much controversy. When she is at her best, though, there are few singers who have ever expressed a burning sense of injustice with more power and eloquence, and in I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, she is generally at her best. While others have attacked the album as “self-confessional,” I would prefer to use the word “autobiographical,” as Sinéad uses her music as a means of self-expression, a way of trying to understand her journey through life. In contrast to other female singers of the era, who had limited emotional range and far less vocal capability, the linking of near-naked emotion with one of the greatest female voices of all time blossoms into music that not only hits you in the gut but lingers in your mind, body and soul long after you’ve heard the performance. Sinéad O’Connor feels deeply and powerfully, and there have been times in her career when the power overwhelms the discipline necessary to create art that connects to the listener. When that happens, it comes across as bitchy rather than moving, but when she’s on, the impact is undeniable and enduring.
Most of the reviews I’ve read focus on the gossipy backstory of this record and her stormy relationship with drummer and ex-husband John Reynolds, a viewpoint that is terribly limiting and small-minded. Sinéad does a superb job on this album translating personal experience to universal experience, as best demonstrated on the first track, “Feel So Different.” Opening with Sinéad reciting a passage from The Serenity Prayer over elongated strings, “Feel So Different” is the universal story of overcoming the self-generated obstacles to growth and the illusions of truth that surround us all. We all tend to believe that identity is relatively static, and we all tend to believe that any problems in our lives are the fault of others. Wouldn’t that be nice? Sinéad exposes that orientation as pure myth, demonstrating that real growth comes from the often painful process of self-reflection.
I am not like I was before
I thought that nothing would change me
I was not listening anymore
still you continued to affect me
I’ve read interpretations of the song that the “you” is either a new lover or her conscience; either interpretation works because growth can be spurred from without or within. The price of growth is the feeling of disconnection from what we knew as normal, especially the disconnection from people we considered our friends:
I started off with many friends
and we spent a long time talking
thought they meant every word they said
but like everyone else they were stalling
and now they seem so different
they seem so different
they seem so different
The epiphany in the climax, “that all I’d need was inside me,” is an acknowledgement of one’s power to overcome the self-generated obstacles to growth, reinforcing the ancient wisdom that the path lies within. Sinéad’s vocal is disciplined and measured, appropriately still during the reflective parts, rising to a crescendo with the epiphany. The strings support the introspective feel of the song, rising along with the intensity of Sinéad’s vocal but never overpowering her . . . as if anything could overpower Sinéad O’Connor! It’s very unusual to open an album with such a reflective song, but Sinéad really didn’t care much for convention. “Feel So Different” is a compelling piece of music that clearly identifies the artist as a different person than the one who recorded The Lion and the Cobra, and with this song she neutralizes any expectations that we’re going to hear the same old stuff.
So, how about a song translated from Gaelic sung over James Brown drum loops? “Táim sínte ar do thuama” was originally translated into the English “I Am Stretched on Your Grave” by Frank O’Connor, then given another scrubbing by Irish roots musician Philip King. Sinéad approaches this song almost as a recital, allowing the story to tell itself. The story is of a man mourning the loss of his once-future bride, and while he sings “Thanks be to Jesus we did what was right/And your maiden head still is your pillar of light,” I find it highly unlikely that any male would stretch himself over a grave of a virgin unless he were a necrophiliac. This is one of those songs that I feel I’m supposed to like, but I really don’t. The fiddle solo on the fade goes on far too long without much variation, an accurate reflection of how the Irish process tragedy: they never seem to let it go. My grandfather could speak with thunderous passion about the atrocities committed by Free State troops during the civil war even though he was born years after the war had ended.
A different kind of passion drives her emotion-jarring performance of “Three Babies,” one of the greatest vocal performances ever recorded. In interviews, Sinéad has referred to three miscarriages before she gave birth to her first child, making a loose connection between the miscarriages and this song as well as the song “My Special Child.” The lyrics affirm that interpretation: “In my soul/My blood and my bones/I have wrapped your cold bodies around me.” The lyrics are indeed powerful, but it is Sinéad’s complete command of the conflicting and lingering emotions that accompany trauma that make this performance uniquely moving.
“Three Babies” begins with gentle chords and Sinéad singing in a breathy, angelic, tranquil tone. The first verse is about acceptance—acceptance of the loss and acceptance of the life choices she has made that may have unintentionally contributed to the miscarriages:
Each of these
My three babies
I will carry with me
I ask no one else will be
Mother to these three
And of course
I’m like a wild horse
But there’s no other way I could be
Water and feed
Are not tools that I need
For the thing that I’ve chosen to be
She begins the chorus in the same tone of acceptance, but the façade begins to break with the line, “I have wrapped your cold bodies around me” before she composes herself and recaptures the tone of serenity. The vocal on the second verse begins with the stronger tone of the “cold bodies” line, then bursts out of the pattern for a moment on the lines “No longer made like a horse/I’m still wild but not lost,” where she sounds ready to shed bitter tears. She sings over the two-note string vamp that introduces the chorus, like a part of her is making a gallant attempt to hold it together, but after she holds the long note on the word “believed,” the grief is there for all to hear in all its wild oscillations: “the face on you” (holding back the flood of tears), “the smell of you,” (the sudden flash of memory sung in manically rising notes), the faith that God will return those babies to her in heaven (“will always be with me”). I choke up every time I hear that chorus, agape with amazement at her vocal control and stunned by the wave of emotion I feel for her. The strings play the theme quietly and respectfully for a few measures, a wise bit of arranging that allows the listener and the singer a few moments to collect themselves. The last verse begins with the tone of serene acceptance, but once again the dam breaks for a moment on the lines, “For myself/I ask no one else will be/Mother to these three.” She has not only accepted her series of misfortunes, but she has accepted herself and her responsibility to the souls she feels will belong to her for all eternity. As a confirmed single woman with no desire to ever have a child, I always find the impact of this song stunning, but I do have a mother, and I know that there is a very special spiritual and emotional attachment between mother and child.
We need a mood change here, and Sinéad comes through with “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” a song about . . . mood changes! Sinéad describes her reactions to several pressures, from pregnancy to sudden fame at twenty-one, to internal growth and to the heavy expectations others place on her. One of the themes of the song is the inability of people, whether intimate friends or the media, to accept displays of strong human emotions, and on that level, it works. A song with a driving beat enhanced greatly by harmonies in the chorus, Sinéad gives another knockout performance and an equally strong message of self-reliance:
whatever it may bring
I will have my own policies
I will sleep with a clear conscience
I will sleep in peace
“Black Boys on Mopeds” is more than just another Irish attack on the British; if there’s one thing Sinéad O’Connor cannot abide, it’s hypocrisy, particularly by those in power. In this case, Iron Lady Thatcher is the target, as she hypocritically bemoans the Tiananmen Square massacre while her police engage in racial profiling. The analogy Sinéad is working with is the use of massed force against innocent civilians; the kid she’s talking about died because the police assumed that because he was black, he had obviously stolen the moped he was riding, and the chase resulted in a fatal crash. The key line, “These are dangerous days/To say what you feel is to dig your own grave,” says as much about Sinéad’s complete intolerance of any restrictions on freedom of expression as it does about the tragic events in Tiananmen Square.
“Nothing Compares 2 U” needs little introduction; it’s the Prince song that became Sinéad’s signature piece largely due to her masterful display of the art of song interpretation on the accompanying music video. The performance is saturated with emotional realism, combining pure sadness at loss, bitter sarcasm towards expert advice and that horrible emptiness you feel when the one you absolutely had to have to survive has chosen to leave. Although I admire her performance on “Three Babies” a bit more, I’m certainly not going to argue with you if you tell me no, this was the greatest female vocal performance of all time. Watch and listen!
“Jump in the River” was co-written with Marco Pirroni of Adam and the Ants fame, and his distorted rhythm guitar drives the song as much as the heavily-processed drums. Sinéad’s vocal is a low-key, low-register sassy performance reminiscent of a smoother version of Joan Jett. Even though the lyrics never land on a common theme, the overall effect is terribly sexy. My favorite lines are “I thought I tasted like too many cigarettes/But you tasted like wine,” capturing that split-second feeling of self-consciousness about your own presentation before you realize that the other person has similar issues and anxieties as well.
“You Cause as Much Sorrow” never really grabbed me: it’s too blame-oriented. The structure is also uneven; the quiet verses take a long time to come to a conclusion, and the choruses don’t fit particularly well with the verses. “The Last Day of Our Acquaintance” is far superior, a sharp and spare depiction of the end of a marriage. The key lines are the Hemingway-esque description of the final rites of passage:
This is the last day of our acquaintance
I will meet you later in somebody’s office
That gruesome image captures the feelings behind my personal decision to never get married: I don’t want my intimate relationships consummated or contaminated by state intervention. What a horrid way to end an experience so full of memories and human feeling! Sinéad’s performance is appropriately detached and seasoned by exhaustion, a sense of defeat and the loss of all hope. Why she turned around and got married three more times is beyond me, but hey, it’s her life and her lessons.
The title track ends the album, opening with the sound of a deeply-drawn breath as Sinéad prepares herself for an a cappella performance lasting nearly six minutes. “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got” is a personal hymn combining both faith in the higher power and faith in her ability to wend her way through life’s journey. It may surprise people who witnessed her pope-ripping performance on SNL that Sinéad O’Connor remains committed to faith and the belief in God; it’s not the faith she questions, it’s the oppressive hierarchy and ornate rules of organized religion. Christian imagery dominates the song, and like the Sermon on the Mount, the meaning of the song lies in the unreachable space between two ends of a paradox:
I’m walking through the desert
And I am not frightened although it’s hot
I have all that I requested
And I do not want what I haven’t got . . .
I have water for my journey
I have bread and I have wine
No longer will I be hungry
For the bread of life is mine.
I saw a navy blue bird
Flying way above the sea
I walked on and I learned later
That this navy blue bird was me
I returned a paler blue bird
And this is the advice they gave me
“You must not try to be too pure
You must fly closer to the sea”
The story of this portion of her life’s journey that began with “Feel So Different” is a tale of making progress. She started her journey in relative confusion but has achieved a certain clarity, particularly around self-identity and how she differentiates herself from “them” and the maddening crowd that always advocates conformity. The decision to sing the song without instrumentation reinforces the intensely personal nature of the journey, but instead of making the listener feel alienated, the journey is an effective metaphor for the journeys that all of us take, and each of those journeys will be unique, with their own twists and turns. Going a cappella was also a wonderful decision because the chance to hear Sinéad’s voice without distraction is a blessing all by itself.
As I’ve mentioned before, I am not a fan of religion and do not have any coherent belief in a higher power. I sense there may be “something else,” something beyond the day-to-day, but that’s as far as I can commit. And as I’ve also written in a few reviews, I find religious songs almost universally distasteful because I hate it when people start preaching at me or claiming they have found the ultimate truth. Although I realize that Sinéad O’Connor is passionately faithful, I don’t find her expressions of faith offensive in the least. Her attitude is “these are my choices—make your own.” I appreciate that, and I appreciate her repeated willingness to sacrifice fame and money when her principles have been violated. I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got received four Grammy nominations and one Grammy, and Sinéad, bless her soul, told them to piss off. I admire a strong woman . . . and it doesn’t hurt if she also happens to own one of the most beautiful and expressive voices to ever give life to song.