Greil Marcus and others writing at the dawn of punk recorded how watching Johnny Rotten was so unsettling that an atmosphere of danger and impending doom would hang over the venue. Sinead O’Connor at the peak of her evanescent stardom in the early nineties had that impact on me. I hadn’t seen her alive — what live performance could match the tremors set off by “Troy,” “Jackie,” and “Just Like U Said It Would B”?
Eric Harvey notes how O’Connor tearing a photo of John Paul II asunder on “Saturday Night Live” provoked the biggest earthquake of all. Watching it at my uncle’s house, the act happened so quickly and spontaneously that we all sat blinking as if a fly had flicked across our lines of vision. It wasn’t all though:
A couple other reactions bear mention: Tim Robbins, that evening’s host, didnt’t even acknowledge her in the good-nights. Didn’t even look at her or mention her name, and she’s standing right next to him. Tim Robbins! Then it got worse the next week, with Joe Pesci. His “hey I taped the photo back together” stunt was fine, but then he said, “if it was my show, I’d have gave her such a smack!”, at which point the audience applauded. Seriously. A round of applause for a man threatening physical violence against a woman who had made a gesture trying to draw attention to child abuse in the Catholic church. Crazy.
Again: Team Sinead forever. When she walks away from the mic after the above performance, she seemed absolutely fine—no doubt still on a high—until Kris Kristofferson grabs her in his unnecessarily paternalistic way (I think he said “don’t let the bastards get to you” or something?), at which point she seems to break down. Which makes sense.
I’m not being fair to How About I Be Me (And You Be You); it’s the first O’Connor I’ve bought since 2000′s Faith and Courage, an album burdened by superstar productions by the likes of Wyclef, David Stewart, and Brian Eno (she could afford them in 2000?). Although it’s her strongest album-length statement since the first Clinton administration, HAIBM depends on the audience’s knowledge that sundry forces ruined her career and fucked her life. One of those sundry forces is O’Connor herself. Like the folkies whose tradition she cheerfully blasted her way past, she confuses topic sentence plainness with eloquence; the magpie who purloined Prince typography and drum machines, who covered Nirvana and mid-eighties B-52′s, is gone. On “Queen of Denmark” she sports a guitar, two chords, and the truth, which these days runs to lines like “I wanted to change the world but I couldn’t even change my underwear” and “I hope you know that all I want from you is sex/To be with someone who looks smashing in athletic wear.” This isn’t territory too far from 1990′s “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” in which she managed to enjamb “You know how it is and how a pregnancy can change you” without tripping over her bare feet.
All credit to a singing voice that has lost some of its bottom end but retains its power to startle. A committed vocal performance means recording a bar or set of verses in one mode and then switching to another seconds later; this tonal imbalance — a commitment to an iteration of “honesty” that requires parody and self-mocking wit — renders the googly-eyed naturalism of her songs even stranger (the 1992 covers album Am I Not Your Girl? failed because, forced to perform in one mode per song, she sounded monochromatic and cowed). The best example here is “Old Lady,” in which the acoustic melody refracts her intensity into the gentlest of irony. She has no problem presenting herself as a dotty old bird carrying parcels and valentines while laughing like an idiot at the fantasy she’s created around loving a man. Savor How About I Be Me, folks — we may not get another.