Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Sweet Tooth Jukebox: Sinead O'Connor

Folks, it's time for another dispatch from the '80s vortex, brought to you by my new book Sweet Tooth. Buy it now, monkeys--the NSA already knows you want it.

Anyway, onward to the rock 'n roll: was there ever a more ferocious and foxy dame to appear on our teevee screens in the eighties than Sinead O'Connor circa 1987's The Lion and the Cobra? Of course there wasn't. Two years later, Sinead would become extremely and exhaustingly famous for covering Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U," for her rapturously received album I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got (which I've always been kind of lukewarm on), for tearing up a picture of the pope on Saturday Night Live, and for getting yelled at by Frank Sinatra. But oh, in the glorious year of 1987, the world was all "wtf?" when a tiny lightbulb-headed woman with pipes for days and limitless spleen to vent burst onto the scene and was everything any angry and sexually frustrated teenager could want in a pop star.

Nearly a teenager herself, Sinead was raw and bald and gorgeous and angry and Irish and pale and terrifying and flawless and maybe a little nuts. She could move from a dulcet coo to a siren's wail in the span of one line, and you never knew which Sinead to expect from moment to moment. The first song on The Lion and the Cobra, "Jackie," a spooky lament for a (literally) lost lover, perfectly encapsulated the spitfire anger, sadness, and aching melodrama at the heart of the album. "Jackie left on a cold dark night, telling me he'd be home," she begins, donning the persona of the ghost of a dead sailor's wife who spent the last twenty years of her life

Washing the sand with my salty tears
Searching the shores these long years
And I walk the seas forevermore
'Til I find my Jackie, oh. 

Heavy! Here, have a listen:

Now, who among us hasn't found ourselves haunting the seven seas because we's lost our one true love in a shipwreck or a mutiny or a Scylla and Charybdis attack? It's the human condition!

The single "Mandinka" was a more upbeat rocker about "dancing the seven veils" and not knowing no shame, not feeling no pain and also, somehow, the Mankinka tribe in Africa. Sure, why not? It's also a song about a singer who can visit all the octaves, any time, whenever she wants. Don't believe me? Here:

Up next is Sinead's sex anthem, "I Want Your Hands on Me," which has the most air-drum-worthy beats in all the land. Truly one of the shwingiest songs of the decade, maybe even in human history, who can say? Did I listen to this song over and over while fantasizing about blowing the entire varsity soccer team behind the bleachers? You're awfully nosy!

But the song that really set Sinead O'Connor apart was the six-minute-plus epic "Troy," in which she had the audacity to compare a love affair she was suffering through to the sacking and burning of Troy during the Trojan War. (It's kind of like when in my diary I compared my teenage diabetic disappointment with Diet Shasta to the crucifixion of Christ, but this blog post isn't about me.) Thing is, she totally pulls it off, you guys. It all makes perfect sense. She was sacked and burned like Troy. She rose like a phoenix from the flames. And she gave hope to the rest of us, since we were all Trojans in the late eighties. Or something. The point is, the Internet is making it impossible for me to embed the video here because of "restrictions" or some shit. What is this, North Korea? So here's the lame youtube, audio only.

(Side fun fact: Did you know that Enya did the spoken word part on the song "Never Get Old"? I KNOW!)

Sinead went on to great fame and fortune with her next record, which catapulted her into the stratosphere on the heels of the gripping, dramatic video for "Nothing Compares 2 U," in which she gets so caught up in the emotion of it all that she sheds real tears. I, however, found this album pretty disappointing after the brittle majesty of The Lion and the Cobra. It didn't have the anger, the searing drama, the glistening, gorgeous mythos of her first. Though "Three Babies" and "Jump in the River" both nodded toward the lush and schizophrenic romanticism of her debut, the album as a whole was too tame, too prematurely adult.

Then, of course, Sinead became a pariah in the US overnight when she pulled the SNL stunt. She was knocked cleanly off her perch on top of the world and never regained it. Because when you've lost MC Hammer, you've lost... um, what exactly?

After her spectacular fall from grace, Sinead released a decent album of American standards called Am I Not Your Girl, which failed to do much for her in the marketplace. Her next album, 1994's Universal Mother, had some awesome tracks on it, but it was a little ponderous for the masses--Sinead had officially become a niche artist. She's put out an album every few years since then, none of them electrifying, some of them quite good, like her last one How About I Be Me and You Be You? 

But any thoughts I have about Sinead O'Connor and her music always come back to the place where I found her: walking the seas, a despondent ghost, sing-howling about her dearly departed Jackie over an epic swirl of beautiful noise. It never got better than The Lion and the Cobra. And I've been waiting for a reissue of it ever since it was first released, so hurry up, record company, wtf are you waiting for? We need B-sides, alternate takes, remixes, previously unreleased tracks, liner notes, high-minded analyses, and praise heaped upon her by other artists. Sinead has earned it.

Come on, Rhino Entertainment (or whatever record company-type entity handles reissues of Ensign/Chrysalis albums), don't make me sic ghost-Sinead on you, cause she's scary when she's pissed.

1 comment:

samael7 said...

Thanks for this. You capture perfectly my encounter with this album in 1988 as a freshman in college, as well as my feelings about I Do Not Want. I played the hell out of this album of a good couple of years. "Jackie" and "Troy" still raise the hair on my skin. And, yes, I did indeed know that Enya did the spoken part of "Never Get Old." I can just about remember the sounds of the opening words ("O-huck shi-or de-day cole-et-oh-hue" is what they sounded like to me, and yes, I mangled them out loud along with Ms. Orinoco Flow too).