I have been a fan of Sinéad O’Connor since The Lion and The Cobra was released in 1987 and I saw her on Top of The Pops singing ‘Mandinka’. She was like a vision of another Ireland, the one my teenage self wanted to be part of rather than the one I wanted to run away from.
Throughout the ups and downs of her career and personal life since then, Sinéad’s key strength as a singer and songwriter has been unflinching honesty about her own complex personality and background, and her willingness to openly go to a place of true vulnerability that few artists would have the courage to face, let alone sing about. That’s why it’s disappointing that the press release accompanying her eighth album of original material, I’m Not Bossy, I’m The Boss, says that only the opening track is autobiographical. “These days I don’t write autobiographical songs, beginning with the last album and continuing with this one, I write character songs – these are characters that don’t in any way represent my own personal experience,” Sinéad says.
While her sophomore album in 1990, Am I Not Your Girl? propelled O’Connor to global stardom, it is the two albums that followed it, Universal Mother (1994) and Faith and Courage (2000), with the Gospel Oak EP (1997) in between, that stand out as the artistic peaks of her recording career. All featuring idiosyncratically forthright songs that challenged the inane mediocrity of pop music during the decade that meaning forgot, these albums ultimately came to cathartic conclusions for a lone star not afraid to bare her inner demons, and thereby spoke deeply to fans about their own catharsis.
While 2012’s How About I Be Me and You Be You? may have featured ‘character songs’, it wasn’t pointed out. The album was a return to form after the disappointingly inscrutable Theology (2007), and while some tracks were obviously ‘story songs’, the overall effect was revelatory.
Knowing that eleven of the twelve tracks from I’m Not Bossy, I’m The Boss don’t in any way represent Sinéad’s own personal experience sets it off at a disadvantage. After the smart, witty, acerbic, autobiographical ‘How About I Be Me?’, which takes the Irish media up for branding her ‘crazy’, Sinéad melts into ‘Dense Water Deeper Down’. A rehash from her 2003 collection of rarely heard tracks, She Who Dwells…, it’s a masturbatory fantasy, but given the subject matter, comes across as unusually flat, as does the supposedly sexually empowering follow-up, ‘Kisses Like Mine’.
‘The Voice of My Doctor’ brings us back to familiarly fiery and enjoyable O’Connor territory. A thumping guitar-stomp, reminiscent of PJ Harvey in energy and tone, it’s about a woman taking revenge when she discovers the man she’s sleeping with is married. ‘Harbour’ moves from meditative to raging, but its ascendance is marred by over-production. Indeed much of the album sees Sinéad’s voice multi-layered until its power is dulled rather than buffed up.
‘James Brown’ moves into playful territory. Half-Petula Clarke’s ‘Downtown’, half-James Brown’s ‘Get On Up’, its combination of sweet and sexy is pulled off with aplomb.
I’ve given up believing that ‘8 Good Reasons’, the album’s best track, is a ‘character song’. We’re supposed to trust that a lyric like: “You know I love to make music/but my head got wrecked from the business/everybody’s wanting something from me/they rarely ever want to just know me” isn’t speaking from Sinéad’s personal experience? The song, in which a woman contemplates suicide but chooses to live for those she loves, including a new man in her life, has the essential recipe of confusion, anger, despair, vulnerability and liberation that earmarks a great Sinéad O’Connor song. It’s followed by the album’s first single, ‘Take Me To Church’, a track about the healing power of self-love that lives up to the album’s catchy-pop ambitions. Then the bleak, fearful and haunting ‘Where Have You Been?’ explores a woman’s instinctive gut reaction to the alienation she sees in her lover’s eyes
The album’s final song, ‘Streetcars’, stands out, not only because of its lyrical beauty, but because it’s the only track that pares back the production to allow the strength of Sinéad’s vocal abilities to shine through. With its reference to Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire and its theme about separating love from desire, spiritual love from emotional love, ‘Streetcars’ is a transcendent finisher in true O’Connor style.
The themes at play here may be about love and desire, but it is only in this final inning that Sinéad’s imagined character puts her earthly obsession with men aside for higher things. Otherwise I’m Not Bossy, I’m The Boss is an album that very much sees women through the lens of their relationships with men, and they are often controlled by those relationships. Interesting stuff from a woman who has been a vocal proponent of her right not to be circumscribed by other people’s, and particularly men’s opinions since the day she first stepped on a stage with her shaved head and Doc Martens.
Perhaps in writing from an imagined persona’s point of view, Sinéad has connected to and revealed a part of herself we’ve never seen before.