Sinead O'Connor / How About I Be Me (And You Be You)
‘On form, focussed and fervent again’ - The Guardian 28th November 2011
There has never been mistaking Sinead O’Connor for anybody else. A voice born to break as many hearts as windows, as tender as it is lethal. The face, simultaneously that of ocean-wide-eyed angel and shaven-headed warrior queen. And the spirit, courageous in its conviction, undaunted by controversy and fortified with endless reserves of resilience. Sinead O’Connor is that rare thing in popular music: a complete one-off. From her first breakthrough hit, 1987’s ‘Mandinka’, to the multi-platinum international success of 1990’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got with its unforgettable number one version of Prince’s ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’, from her fearless genre-crossing forays into Irish folk and roots reggae to her collaborations with artists as diverse as Peter Gabriel, Massive Attack and The Chieftans, O’Connor has trodden a unique path to become the most iconic Irish female artist of the past 30 years. There is no one like Sinead O’Connor. There is only Sinead O’Connor.
Lest the world dare forget who Sinead O’Connor is, it’s about to be reminded once more. 25 years after her debut, 1987’s The Lion And The Cobra, she returns with How About I Be Me (And You Be You), her ninth studio album and as show stopping a performance as her silver jubilee deserves. Produced by long-term collaborator John Reynolds, its ten tracks play like an encyclopedic definition of O’Connor’s oeuvre: songs about love and loss, hope and regret, pain and redemption, anger and justice. “I kind of realised I’ve spent a lot of my life as an artist being told what I should be,” says O’Connor of the title. “Being told you should be this, you should do this, you shouldn’t do that. You get to a certain age when you realise no, it’s perfectly OK for me to be me, thank you very much, and you to be you. But it’s very much an Irish thing. It’s really a comment about Ireland and what it’s like to be an Irish female artist, and particularly THIS Irish female artist.”
It begins with O’Connor as a giddy bride-to-be on the infectious hoedown ‘4th & Vine’; or as she laughingly puts it, one of many “girlie songs” on the album. “There are quite a lot of love songs on the record. It wasn’t deliberate, but I’m pleased about it cos I never really did write love songs.” So too the rousing ‘Old Lady’, a tongue-in-cheek punk ballad written about her crush on friend and Crying Game director Neil Jordan, and the buoyant call of ‘The Wolf Is Getting Married’. “Another song about girlie issues,” she says of the latter. “The title is something I’ve been wanting to use for years. When I lived in London I was in a cab having a chat with the young Muslim driver. The sky was really grey with just a little bit of blue shining through the clouds. He told me in Arab countries they called that the wolf is getting married, like he’s smiling on his way to his wedding. I thought that was a gorgeous expression.”
Stepping out of herself and into character, the dreamily poignant ‘Back Where You Belong’ is a love song from a dead father killed in war to his son, originally written for the 2007 children’s fantasy film The Water Horse. “There are several songs on the album which are character songs,” explains O’Connor, “not necessarily me but a part of me.” Equally emotive is the murmuring techno pulse of ‘I Had A Baby’, sung from the perspective of a single-parent. “It’s a subject that people don’t really write about. Even thought parentlessness is such a huge thing in the world, you rarely hear about it in a pop song. The character is a woman singing about a child she’s had with a married man who’s opted to have nothing to do with the child. And really, what that’s like for the child and for the mother, how painful that is.”
The theme of pain, emotional and physical, casts its shadow wide. The beautiful ‘Very Far From Home’ is a personal catharsis of the loneliness of life on the road, as written and sung by a mother of four. “I can get very lonely on tour,” admits O’Connor. “It’s funny, I am a strong person but we’re all contradictions and I’m quite vulnerable as well. Unless I have my home, my kids and all the things that keep me rooted I get quite freaked travelling around the world. When you’re away from home you feel guilty. You’re lonely, you’re in Ostend or wherever and it’s like, what’s the fucking point?!”
On ‘Reason With Me’, O’Connor delves even further into the dark, prompted by the personal testimonies of lives ripped to shreds by addiction. “The song is mostly inspired by this guy I met in Ireland, a heroin addict all his life and he thought he was a total piece of shit. He was like someone who had concrete poured all over him. Then I saw him again six months later and there was the same guy after he’d started to take action and there was this light in his eyes, he was a different person, the concrete was off him. He wasn’t perfect, but he was happy and hopeful. So the song really sums that up.”
Living up to O’Connor’s reputation as a powerfully original interpreter of other songwriters is the album’s one cover version, John Grant’s uncompromising lover’s kiss-off ‘Queen Of Denmark’. “It’s a song about taking back your self-esteem and I loved the anger of it,” she enthuses. “I didn’t know John before but through doing the song we became mates. He has a great way of saying angry things in a terribly funny way.”
Unquestionably, the album’s dramatic highlights are the two songs born of O’Connor’s passionate response to the 2009 Murphy Report, the Irish government’s enquiry into institutionalised child abuse in the country’s Catholic school system and the cover-ups by the church hierarchy. On ‘Take Off Your Shoes’, O’Connor becomes a mouthpiece for, as she describes it, “the Holy Spirit with an AK rifle on the train on the way to the Vatican.” As one of the most vocal campaigners against the attempted whitewash, O’Connor was eager to acknowledge her beliefs in song. “I liked the idea of scaring the fucking shit out of [the Vatican],” she explains. “What makes me angry and a bit of a soldier is I don’t like the Holy Spirit disrespected. To me that’s how it comes across, that they don’t have any respect for the Holy Spirit if they can stand in its presence and lie over the rapes of small boys, covering these crimes up and yet it takes them two minutes to condemn Harry Potter for being evil.”
Which brings us to the captivating hymnal finale, ‘VIP’, where O’Connor turns her wrath on her fellow international Irish musicians too timid to step in and help her rattle the Papal cage. “We had a great tradition in Irish history of artists being a major part of the creation of history and the running of our culture,” she explains. “They were very involved politically and half of them were driven into exile because they’d challenged society. Writers like Edna O’Brien, J.M. Synge, even James Joyce. Now you have this thing in Ireland where the artists have ceased to be interested in Irish issues and I find that very, very heartbreaking, especially with the publication of the Murphy Report.”
“I had tried,” she continues, “to get a number of enormous internationally successful Irish musical artists to get involved in the struggle, to lend their voice, including someone who had actually endorsed Pope John Paul II and I was met with a stonewall of disinterest. So I think it’s kind of criminal that the major musical artists from Ireland are doing nothing. And what annoys me is the one who endorsed the Pope is someone who goes on about believing in God all the time. So my view is, as artists, don’t wave your fucking Grammy around going on about believing in God if you’re not prepared to stand in the street and fight for the honour of God in your own country when your church has been raping little boys. It’s just fucking stupid. And I was a bit nervous of challenging these artists. I’ve nothing against them personally. But it’s time to say things as they are.”
Saying, and singing, things the way they are: it’s what Sinead O’Connor’s been doing best for the last 25 years. “I don’t like comparing my records,” she concludes, “but I do think there is a confidence there with this one. For a few years I went very into myself and I think I wasn’t confident to be me because I was taking a kicking every time I did anything. So it seems to me that with this record I am more confident being me. You just grow into that way of thinking, y’know, what?” she laughs, “Fuck off!”
The irrepressible, irreplaceable Sinead O’Connor. How about she be she and we just be thankful for it.