There’s a quip that’s been fluttering around music circles for the past year. The wording varies, but it boils down to this: “So, when Adele’s happy, does she just stop writing songs, or what’s the deal with that?” The witticism is a bit played-out in the wake of the singer’s Grammy sweep, but it poses an interesting question: can a singer known for spinning their depressive notions into musical gold excel when they’ve arrived at a place of relative contentment? Artists as diverse as Bon Iver, Fleetwood Mac, and Eminem have deftly articulated their misery on wax, resulting in some of the most exciting and challenging music of the past few decades.
One could argue that Sinead O’Connor has predicated her career on a similar sense of dissatisfaction. Certainly her biggest hit is “Nothing Compares 2 U”, a cooing, fragile reworking of a Prince-penned soul number; the video’s imagery has become some of the music video era’s most indelible, Sinead’s unblinking gaze wide and expressive beneath that shorn domepiece, stray tears leaking from the sides of her iron stare and tumbling, undeterred, down her cheeks like Denzel in Glory. Considering that her other claim to fame was angrily tearing up a picture of the Pope on live television, Sinead’s calling card is hardly her sunny disposition. And make no mistake, her new record, How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?, isn’t a Liz Phair-like about-face; but the vivid ten-track record manages to accommodate both Sinead’s legendary emotional and social unrest and a newfound sense of happiness. It suits her well, but, perhaps predictably, Sinead’s at her best when she’s got something to be upset about.
This isn’t to discredit songs like opening number “4th and Vine”. A shuffling, kitchen-sink jam straight out of the Tom Waits playbook, it boasts some of Sinead’s most girlish, simplistic couplets, but lyrical virtuosity is temporarily abandoned for a swooning summer jam about wide-eyed puppy love. Ditto “Old Lady”, a meatier, guitar-driven number that briefly recalls the mid-’90s glory days of Tanya Donnelly and Belly; here, Sinead even sends up her own stonefaced persona, fantasizing that a proclamation of love from her crush will make her “laugh like an idiot, not be so serious.” It’s a refreshingly hopeful notion from the recent tabloid idol.
How About I Be Me isn’t always so cheery. Moody religious imagery invades the stormy “Take Off Your Shoes”, lending an air of minor-key gravitas to the “hallowed ground” motif often explored in hymns; “Back Where You Belong” rides along on a martial beat and builds in intensity from an icy love song to an expansive catharsis like an excellent Achtung Baby outtake; a cover of criminally slept-on songwriter John Grant’s “Queen of Denmark” sounds like it was written specifically for this album, Sinead’s vocals vacillating from controlled rage to explosive grievance-airing and back again in the span of seconds. The latter cover, pointed and straightforward, illustrates why Sinead isn’t merely a great songwriter, but an excellent interpreter; her divinely poignant vocal catches the breath in the lungs, swings for the fences, makes the words of another her own without batting an eye.
How About I Be Me (And You Be You)? is a soulful record to its very core; Sinead’s humane, expressive vocals lend weight and gravitas to her every syllable, and if the album’s not quite as angry as we’re used to from the Irish siren, it’s all the better for reflecting the breadth of the human experience. Sinead O’Connor may have passed her commercial sell-out date, at least as far as the mainstream is concerned, but no matter: 25 years after her debut, she’s still making quality records, and still refuses to settle into mediocrity in her late career. Cheers to Sinead for that–can we finally forgive her for that Pope thing now?
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