Sinead O'Connor

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The Lion And The Cobra (1987), 8/10
I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got , 6/10
Am I Not Your Girl , 4/10
Universal Mother , 5/10
Faith And Courage, 6/10
Sean-Nos Nua , 3.5/10
Throw Down Your Arms (2005), 3/10
Theology (2007), 3/10
How About I Be Me (2012) , 4/10
I'm Not Bossy, I'm The Boss (2014), 3/10

Ireland's Sinead O'Connor, one of the most televised women of her time, channeled punk anger into an acrobatic melisma made of glacial, murderous shrieks and childish, guttural gasps. Her style fused Gregorian chants, African-American spirituals, celtic ballads, middle-eastern litanies, and Meredith Monk's experiments on the human voice. In the process, she became an icon of asexual rebelliousness (as opposed to Madonna's sexual kind). That schizoid persona was propelled on The Lion And The Cobra (1987) by hard-rock riffs, discordant electronics, neoclassical arrangements, funk grooves and hip-hop tremors, that delivered the full impact of her traumas. The shocking, epic and articulate vehemence of that debut was lost on I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got (1990), which reverted to sophisticated soul-pop music (such as Prince's Nothing Compares).
(Translated from my old Italian text by Nicholas Green)

In the late 1980s, the young Irish woman Sinéad O'Connor came powerfully to the forefront of a lifeless singer-songwriter scene. O'Connor, with her angry punk edge and a touch of poignant romanticism, dramatically boosted her entire genre. Her persona was era-defining: O'Connor had effectively "de-sexualized" herself by shaving her head - nullifying the sex appeal of her cat eyes - and screaming like a banshee. There was not much that was feminine about her public demeanor or her style of singing. If anything, her ungainly intensity harkened back to the blues "screamers" of the 1950s, but with a cold, sarcastic tone that was akin to Baader-Meinhof terrorists, not Mississippi sharecroppers. In this respect, O'Connor broke with tradition.

Over the years, O'Connor has seldom been able to justify her fame artistically, although her influence is undeniable.

O'Connor showed up precociously, at the age of twenty, with the intense and groundbreaking album The Lion and the Cobra (Chrysalis, 1987). The biggest shock here is her vocal register: O'Connor enjoys using her voice in ways that would make other singers (literally) choke up. Her sudden high notes - sung in the throat - are harmonious and exhilarating, successfully channeling the intense emotions of her lyrics. Conscious of her talent, O'Connor doesn't just limit herself to singing songs. Her acrobatic vocalizations fuse Gregorian chant, African-American spirituals, Celtic ballads, and Middle Eastern litanies with the vocal experiments of Meredith Monk and Laurie Anderson. In short, the lifeblood of the album is O'Connor's very strong musical personality, more so than the record's refined arrangements, hard rock riffs, and exotic, technological rhythms.

On the strength of such expressive power, the record weaves a tapestry of a magical, fairy-tale universe. O'Connor scampers about in enthralling rock songs like Mandinka; she grafts funky basslines and African percussion onto the epic, spacey dance track Jerusalem; and she also loosens up on tender, martial Celtic songs like Just Like U Said It Would B (classically arranged with accordion, harpsichord, and flutes). Laurie Anderson's experiments inspire the "free singing" of Never Get Old (with choral overdubs and distant drum rhythms), and Peter Gabriel's avant-garde funk inspires I Want Your (Hands on Me), an ante litteram trip-hop track with dub bass and soul singing. O'Connor even allows herself the luxury of performing the high Greek drama of Troy with a backing symphony orchestra. With the ability to soar into epic high notes, sink into poignant laments, and soften into enamored whispers, O'Connor's voice is one of the most pliant and expressive in the history of rock. Her voice is intensified through immersion in violent, multijointed songs (influenced by the harmonic rifts of hip-hop) that are completely outside the tradition of folk songs, more closely resembling hallucinated psychodramas. Her tragic wail tears the music apart into excruciating confessions of pain, vulnerability, and solitude.

O'Connor had, however, almost completely run out of things to say after that artistic breakthrough. The violent psychodramas of that work completely disappear on her follow-up I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got (Chrysalis, 1990). Nothing Compares 2 U, a Prince song which she performed with a desperate amorous melancholy, earned her international stardom.

The rest of the album is something of a tribute to pop music of the past: instead of the seismic frenzies of hip-hop or electronic undercurrents, string sections and choruses peep in. What's worse, her singing register, with all the rough edges of her dissonant high notes having been smoothed out, has become a velvety cocktail-lounge whisper. The production (by her own hand) is highly sophisticated and turns each song into a delightful exercise in kitsch, but nothing more.
The theme of the album seems to be an premature sentimental insecurity (instead of the previous album's impudent rebelliousness). Her pre-feminist lyrics always define her individuality in relation to man (or the absence of man). The heartfelt litanies of Feel So Different and Three Babies, barely whispered over an orchestral breeze, suggest a cross between a more contrite Springsteen and a more crepuscular Enya. The transcendent quality of this new style of singing is almost the opposite of the exuberant and vehement "corporality" of her debut. The strong rhythm and blues pacing of I Am Stretched On Your Grave is not harnessed to one of her surreal flights, but rather to a lullaby so soft and so unmodulated as to sound like a mantra or a requiem. The lyrics are personal to the point of embarrassment.
However, in the guise of a refined lady, rather than an irreverent bad girl, O'Connor must feel a bit cramped; so much so that on The Emperor's New Clothes the Irish songstress slips into an immaculate power-pop chorus and cadence, and on Jump in the River, she also tries to imitate the sensual register of Chrissie Hynde and the rock and roll swagger of the Pretenders.
O'Connor becomes an international celebrity by singing Prince's Nothing Compares 2 U, a performance that cashes in on her chronic state of depression. The singer's style has not disappeared, though it is almost kept concealed: she is a musician who needs to adjust her sights.

Her provocative (or perhaps just immature) attitude leads her for the sake of consistency to an album that no one expected, Am I Not Your Girl? (Chrysalis, 1992), a collection of covers of songs taken (mostly) from the easy listening repertoire, all with the accompaniment of a small ballroom orchestra from the 1950s. In truth, this is the logical consequence of her new ego: O'Connor is first and foremost a performer, a great performer in the tradition of cabaret chanteuses; the bottom line is that there are not too many boudoirs separating her from Madonna. What does set her apart from Madonna is, if anything, her emotionality, that flicker of life (sometimes imperceptible, but always present) that she manages to infuse time and time again into even the dullest songs.

Her anger has subsided, but her need for public psychotherapy has not. Fire on Babylon is emblematic of Universal Mother (Chrysalis, 1994) as a whole: O'Connor uses herself - a child abused and abandoned by her parents - as a metaphor for all the evils of the world, from the tragedies of Ireland (in the rap of Famine) to the cruel dogmas of the Catholic church. The Renaissance chant John I Love You, arranged for chamber orchestra and Japanese percussion, is the boldest track. The others make this album the most Spartan of her career.

The EP Gospel Oak (Chrysalis, 1997) breaks her silence due to the birth of her second child with a handful of highly personal confessions that alternate between anger and sorrow, between pleading and longing. The fluffy This Is to Mother You (with a baroque arrangement, reminiscent of Enya) and the martial 4 My Love (with accordion and Spanish-style guitar) add nothing significant to her repertoire, however.

Interestingly, one gets the impression of a kind of continual repudiation of herself: from record to record O'Connor is probably moving away from what she would really like to sing, just as day after day she refuses to let her hair grow out and become the beautiful young woman she could (and perhaps would) like to be. In this sacrificial rite O'Connor consummates her frustrations and insecurities. In this cathartic bath she reveals her true identity: she is a mask, not a person. In this tribute to her childhood - or rather the world before her childhood - she celebrates the innocence she lost on the day she was born, and celebrates the ego that she was never given, and that she can only glimpse through other peoples' eyes.

Her stubborn and capricious independence, her standoffish and unpredictable personality (which never really left the streets) make her a "political" point of reference. But, musically, the outcome is that none of her records would hold up to an unbiased listen, uninfluenced by her public image.

Alla fine degli anni '80 la giovanissima irlandese Sinead O'Connor (1966) venne prepotentemente alla ribalta di un'asfittica scena di cantautori. O'Connor, con il suo piglio rabbiosamente punk e un tocco di struggente romanticismo, impresse un'accelerazione spettacolare a tutto un genere. Il suo personaggio fece epoca: O'Connor si era di fatto "de-sessualizzata", rasandosi il capo, annullando il sex appeal dei suoi occhi da gatta e urlando come un'ossessa. Non c'era molto di femminile nel suo atteggiamento pubblico o nel suo stile di canto. La sua sgraziata intensita` si ricollegava semmai agli "urlatori" blues degli anni '50, ma con un tono freddo e sarcastico che era parente semmai dei terroristi delle Baader Meinhof non delle piantagioni del Mississippi. Proprio in questo O'Connor ruppe con la tradizione.

Nell'arco degli anni O'Connor e` pero` raramente riuscita a giustificare artisticamente la sua fama.

Teenager ribelle, venne rinchiusa in un riformatorio di Dublino dove l'unico modo di tenerla calma era di lasciarle suonare la chitarra. Scoperta dai discografici, rifiuto` un produttore professionale e produsse da se il primo album.

O'Connor si presento` precocissima, a vent'anni, con un album intenso e rivoluzionario come The Lion And The Cobra (Chrysalis, 1987), il cui shock maggiore e` il suo registro vocale: O'Connor si diverte a fare cose con la sua voce che stonerebbero (letteralmente) nella gola delle altre cantanti. I suoi improvvisi acuti gutturali riescono invece a suonare non solo armoniosi ma anche trascinanti, riescono a convogliare proprio le intense emozioni delle sue liriche. Conscia del suo talento, O'Connor non si limita a cantare canzoni. I suoi acrobatici vocalizzi sposano la liturgia gregoriana, il canto "nero", la ballata celtica e le litanie mediorentiali con gli esperimenti canori di Meredith Monk e Laurie Anderson. Il disco vive, insomma, della sua fortissima personalita' musicale, piu` ancora di quanto viva degli arrangiamenti lambiccati, dei riff di hard-rock e dei ritmi esotici e tecnologici.

Forte di tanta forza espressiva, il disco affresca un universo magico e fiabesco. O'Connor scorrazza per canzoni rock trascinanti come Mandinka; innesta linee funky e percussioni africane nel ballabile epico e spaziale di Jerusalem; si distende anche in tenere e marziali filastrocche celtiche come Just Like You Said (arrangiata in maniera classicheggiante con fisarmonica, clavicembalo e flauti). Gli esperimenti di Laurie Anderson ispirano canti liberi come Never Get Old (con sovraincisioni di cori e ritmo di tamburi lontani), e il funk d'avanguardia di Peter Gabriel le ispira I Want Your (un trip-hop ante litteram con basso dub e canto soul). O'Connor si consente persino il lusso di declamare l'alto dramma greco di Troy sullo sfondo di un'orchestra sinfonica. Capace di inerpicarsi in epici acuti, di sprofondare in lamenti struggenti e e di distendersi in bisbigli innamorati, la voce di O'Connor e` una delle piu` duttili ed espressive della storia del rock. La musicista la esalta immergendola in canzoni violente e articolare (influenzate dalle fratture armoniche dell'hip-hop) che sono l'esatto opposto della tradizionale ballata per folk-singer e assomigliano piu` ad allucinati psicodrammi. Il suo tragico ululato lacera la musica in atroci confessioni di dolore, vulnerabilita` e solitudine.

Nel frattempo era rimasta incinta del batterista, John Reynolds, e qualche settimana dopo l'uscita del disco partori` il primo figlio.

O'Connor aveva pero` esaurito con quell'opera di rottura quasi tutto cio` che aveva da dire. I violenti psicodrammi di quell'opera scompaiono del tutto dal successivo I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got (Chrysalis, 1990). Nothing Compares, una canzone di Prince, che lei rese con disperata malinconia amorosa, le vale la stardom internazionale.

Il resto dell'album e` quasi un tributo alla musica pop del passato: invece delle frenesie sismiche dell'hip-hop o dei sottofondo elettronici, fanno capolino sezioni d'archi e cori Quel che e` peggio, il suo registro di canto, appianate tutte le spigolosita' dei suoi acuti dissonanti, e` diventato un vellutato bisbiglio da cocktail lounge. La produzione (di sua mano) e` sofisticatissima e trasforma ogni canzone in un piacevolissimo esercizio di kitsch, ma nulla piu`.
Il tema dell'album sembra essere una precoce insicurezza sentimentale (invece della ribellione strafottente dell'album precedente). Le sue liriche pre-femministe definiscono la sua individualita` sempre in rapporto all'uomo (o all'assenza dell'uomo). Le accorate litanie di Feel So Different e 3 Babies, appena bisbigliate in una brezza orchestrale, fanno pensare a un incrocio fra lo Springsteen piu` contrito e l'Enya piu` crepuscolare. La qualita` trascendente di questo nuovo stile di canto e` quasi l'opposto dell'esuberante e veemente "corporalita'" degli esordi. Il forte incedere rhythm and blues di I Am Stretched On Your Grave non viene sfruttato per uno dei suoi voli surreali, bensi` per una cantilena tanto soffusa e cosi` poco modulata da sembrare un mantra o un requiem. Le liriche sono personali al punto da diventare imbarazzanti.
In queste vesti di signora raffinata, invece che di ragazzaccia irriverente, O'Connor si deve pero` sentire un po` stretta. Tant'e` che in The Emperor's New Clothes la cantante irlandese trova anche un ritornello e una cadenza impeccabilmente powerpop e in Jump In The River prova a imitare anche il registro sensuale di Chrissie Hynde e l'andatura rock and roll dei Pretenders.
O'Connor diventa una celebrita` internazionale cantando la Nothing Compares 2U di Prince, un'interpretazione che trasforma in moneta sonante il suo cronico stato di prostrazione. La classe della cantante non e` scomparsa, anche se e` quasi tenuta nascosta: e` la la musicista che deve meglio calibrare il tiro.

I suoi atteggiamenti provocatori (o forse soltanto immaturi) la portano per coerenza al disco che nessuno si aspettava, Am I Not Your Girl (1992), una raccolta di cover di brani tratti (per lo piu`) dal repertorio della musica leggera; per di piu` con l'accompagnamento di una piccola orchestra da balera degli anni '50. In realta` e` la logica conseguenza del suo nuovo ego: O'Connor e` innanzitutto un'interprete, una grande interprete nella tradizione delle chanteuse di cabaret. In fondo non sono troppi i boudoir che la separano da Madonna. Cio` che la separa da Madonna e` semmai l'emotivita`, quel tremito di vita (talvolta impercettibile, ma sempre presente) che riesce ad immettere sempre e comunque anche nelle canzoni piu` piatte.

Si e` placata l'ira, ma non il suo bisogno di psicoterapia pubblica. Fire On Babylon e` emblematica dell'intero Universal Mother (1994): O'Connor usa se stessa, bambina abusata e abbandonata dai genitori, come metafora per tutti i mali del mondo, dalle tragedie dell'Irlanda (nel rap di Famine) ai crudeli dogmi della chiesa cattolica. La cantilena rinascimentale di John I Love You, arrangiata per orchestra da camera e percussioni giapponesi, e` il brano piu` ardito. Gli altri fanno di quest'album il piu` spartano della sua carriera.

Nel 1995 O'Connor ebbe la figlia Rosie dal giornalista John Waters.

L'EP Gospel Oak (Chrysalis, 1997) interrompe il silenzio dovuto alla nascita del secondo figlio con un pugno di confessioni molto personali che alternano rabbia a dolore, supplica a desiderio. La soffice This Is To Mother You (con un arrangiamento barocco, reminescente di Enya) e la marziale 4 My Love (con fisarmonica e chitarra spagnoleggiante) non aggiungono comunque nulla di significativo al suo repertorio.

E` curioso che si ha l'impressione di una sorta di un continuo ripudio di se stessa: di disco in disco O'Connor si sta probabilmente allontanando da cio` che vorrebbe davvero cantare, esattamente come giorno dopo giorno rifiuta di lasciarsi crescere i capelli e diventare la bella ragazza che potrebbe (e forse vorrebbe) essere. In questo rito sacrificale O'Connor consuma le sue frustrazioni e insicurezze. In questo bagno catartico rivela la sua vera identita': e` una maschera, non un'anima. In questo tributo alla sua infanzia, anzi al mondo prima della sua infanzia, celebra l'innocenza che perse appena nata, celebra l'ego che non le fu dato e che puo` intravedere soltanto nei panni di altri.

La sua testarda e capricciosa indipendenza, la sua scostante e imprevedibile personalita` (che non ha in realta` mai abbandonato le strade) ne fanno un punto di riferimento "politico". Ma, musicalmente, il risultato e` che nessuno dei suoi dischi resisterebbe a un ascolto imparziale, non influenzato dalla sua immagine pubblica.

(Clicka qua per la versione Italiana)

In 1999 O'Connor was ordained priest by an unorthodox branch of Christianity.

Faith And Courage (Atlantic, 2000) could be O'Connor's best album since the debut. Emotionally, O'Connor finds again the anthemic pulse of the angry young woman (No Man's Woman, Daddy I'm Fine). Sonically, she runs the gamut of dub (courtesy of reggae guru Adrian Sherwood), ambient (Brian Eno) and hip hop (Wyclef Jean). The Healing Room sets a pace for a truly cathartic rebirth. Even Jealous (the mandatory romantic ballad from the pop diva who sang Nothing Compares To You) sounds more O'Connor-ian than anything she has written since hitting the charts. If The Lion And The Cobra's visceral shriek can never come back, this is the closest an adult woman can get to it. O'Connor writes the lyrics and sings. Most of the music is co-written with a crowded team of producers and quantity does not necessarily mean quality.

On Sean-Nos Nua (Vanguard, 2002) O'Connor performs traditional Irish tunes. An evening with Fidel Castro would be more entertaining.

In 2004 O'Connor had her third child, Shane (from singer Donal Lunny).

Collaborations (Capitol, 2005) collects her collaborations with Massive Attack, Peter Gabriel, Bono, Moby, Bomb the Bass, Asian Dub Foundation, Jah Wobble, etc.

Throw Down Your Arms (That's Why There's Chocolate And Vanilla, 2005) contains only reggae covers.

In 2006 she had her fourth child (from yet another man).

The double-disc Theology (2007) contains both acoustic and band versions of the same songs. Alas, the material is the worst of her career.

She attempted suicide in january 2012.

How About I Be Me (2012) mostly succeeds when it sticks to highly personal matters, like in the syncopated Bollywood dance 4th and Vine. She desperately tries to still sound blasphemous (and current) with the mostly vocal gospel anti-hymn Take Off Your Shoes. There's little else of note.

I'm Not Bossy, I'm The Boss (2014) could have run for the title of worst album of the year.

The single Milestones (2018) was her first release in four years.

Her mental decline seemed to parallel her musical decline. In 2018 Sinead O'Connor converted to Islam and changed her name to Shuhada' Davitt, perhaps a desperate attempt to attract some media coverage.

In 2022 her teenage son Shane committed suicide.

O'Connor died in 2023 at the age of 56.

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