Sinéad O’Connor is a singer of rare talent and versatility. Also, at least as the conventional wisdom would have it, she is batshit wack-a-ding-hoy. Her solo career sputtered (at least in America) after an escalating series of political and social pronouncements, including a jab at the papacy that now seems eerily prescient. And if she was right about all of it — and she was, about everything — well, that hardly matters, does it? Not to the industry, anyway. Because she has a reputation for being nuts, or naive, or self-righteous, or simply too unapologetically raw to work comfortably within the restraints of the marketing machine of modern pop. All for the sin of being a woman who tells her truth and takes no shit.
But her fellow artists know. They recognize the power and passion of her voice, and the air of spiritual authority she carries. And so she’s still in demand as a hired gun; when it’s just her in the studio with the bands, without a lot of industry types hanging around to be made uncomfortable, those qualities can be channeled into some extraordinary music.
The Edge, “Heroine”
(from Captive OST, 1987)
Long before the controversies, the first we ever heard of O’Connor on vinyl was on this little-heard theme tune for a little-seen movie. The soundtrack album — to date the only true solo project by U2 guitarist the Edge — came out a year or two before O’Connor’s debut The Lion and the Cobra, and is easily the most memorable thing about Captive. “Heroine” also features Larry Mullen Jr. on drums, and while it wasn’t a radio hit — let’s face it, that chorus was never going to not be misinterpreted — it did establish O’Connor as a singer to watch.
Jah Wobble’s Invaders of the Heart, “Visions of You” (from Rising Above Bedlam, 1991)
From punk rocker to Public Image Ltd. co-founder to ambient funkster — with a couple of retirements and a stint as a London cabbie along the way — bass player and vocalist Jah Wobble has had a long and winding journey. “Visions of You” finds him celebrating a spiritual rebirth, accompanied by O’Connor’s eastern-flavored angel choir.
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Sinéad O’Connor with Maurice Seezer, “You Made Me the Thief of Your Heart”
(from In the Name of the Father OST, 1994)
Another film soundtrack, another U2 connection: “Thief” was co-written by Bono with his old Dublin crony Gavin Friday and Friday’s musical director Maurice Seezer. This was O’Connor’s reintroduction to American radio after her infamous Saturday Night Live appearance and the subsequent backlash, and she makes the most of the opportunity.
Shane MacGowan and the Popes, “Haunted” (from The Snake, 1995)
This one I love for the sheer oddness of it. The original Pogues version of ”Haunted,” from the Sid and Nancy soundtrack, was a swirl of Celtic girl-group glory, simple and straightforward, with Cait O’Riordan doing her best Ronnie Spector. Shane MacGowan‘s re-recording for his solo debut has the hallmarks of a concession to a nervous record label; the special guest vocalist, the superstar guest producer — that’s a formula for a hit single, right? Is it, hell! O’Connor gives an uncharacteristically mannered performance, while MacGowan sounds like he’s come fresh from a bout of vomiting in the studio toilets. Poor Trevor Horn piles on the grandeur, but he can barely make the two singers sound like they’re on the same planet, let alone in the same room. It’s hilarious, in a “what were they thinking” kind of way, and the video — my God, the video…
Afro Celt Sound System, “Release” (from Volume 2: Release, 1999)
The omnivorous approach of this world-music collective — imagine an onstage collision of a céilidh band and a griot ensemble at an Orb gig — has always had room for collaboration; they’ve worked with Peter Gabriel, Robert Plant, and Heather Nova, among many others. But the Afro Celts credit O’Connor with helping them to move on and continue after the sudden death of founding keyboardist Jo Bruce. Band member James McNally says, ”We had this track we didn’t know what to do with. Sinéad scribbled a few lyrics and bang! … She blew into the studio on a windy November night and blew away again leaving us something incredibly emotional and powerful.” The image of O’Connor as a pop Mary Poppins may be exaggerated for effect, but there’s no arguing with the result.
Massive Attack, “A Prayer For England” (from 100th Window, 2003)
O’Connor’s voice is undeniably beautiful, but it’s an austere beauty. There’s nothing soothing about her approach — there’s always a nervous edge. Massive Attack works her expertly into their brooding dance music; her mournful keen underscores the urban paranoia of the lyrics. In its theme of child abuse and treacherous authorities, “A Prayer For England” follows on from her Pope-shredding stunt — “The teachers are representing You so badly that not many can see You” — but it holds out a hope for redemption, even for the worst of the worst; “Jah calls the ones whose beliefs killed children to feel the love of You and be healed.” You know, they thought the saints were crazy, too.