Sinead O’Connor has often been all things to all people: voice in the wilderness against the Catholic Church, strident U2 dissenter, maverick Mother Ireland, old-school feminist, suburban mother of four, serial monogamist, and a woman more sinned against than sinning.
She has, of course, also often been all things to herself, depending on what time of the day it is. She’s been infuriating, tiresome and maybe even fascinating, a mess of contradictions. But let’s forget all that (the gleeful tabloid gawping especially) and remember what she really is – a fiercely confrontational songwriter with one of the most expressive voices in music.
On her ninth album (which is dedicated to her novelist brother, Joseph, and also to her former boyfriend Frank Bonadio) she’s back mixing the personal, the spiritual and the political.
O’Connor’s last few records have been genuine if slightly worthy excursions into reggae and Irish trad but happily re-united with producer (and ex-husband No.1) John Reynolds, she draws on a lot of different musical styles here. The supremely infectious 4th and Vine is a jaunty reggae jug band gambol that nods to Going to The Chapel; a well-chosen cover of John Grant’s Queen of Denmark sees her tapping back into the primal scream of her debut The Lion and The Cobra; while Reason With Me is a desperately accurate tale of a junkie trying to bargain with his/her addiction and the contempt and pity of conventional society.
But at the (lion) heart of this album is O’Connor the maverick, a performer who may thrive on girly mischief but also a performer who actually has something to say. On Take Off Your Shoes, she vents spleen on behalf of the abused and the dispossessed, and when she sings ‘I was always crazy, I wish I wasn’t so crazy’ on I Had a Baby it may very well break your heart.
But the finest thing here is What is a Real VIP? Against a lonely, slowly building dirge of pipes Sinéad delivers a saddened but clear-eyed demolition of celebrity-obsessed culture that has all the power of a graveside oration: ‘I’ll tell you what a real VIP is – a face that never was or will be kissed/to whom exactly are we giving hope when we stand behind a velvet rope and get our pictures taken with the Pope?’
It’ll stop you (and possibly Bono) dead in your tracks. How About I Be Me (And You Be You)? is a startling return to form. Did anybody really think she still had it in her?