Thursday 10 September 2015

Sinéad O’CONNOR: I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got

(#404: 24 March 1990, 1 week)

Track listing: Feel So Different/I Am Stretched On Your Grave/Three Babies/The Emperor’s New Clothes/Black Boys On Mopeds/Nothing Compares 2 U/Jump In The River/You Cause As Much Sorrow/The Last Day Of Our Acquaintance/I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got

To illustrate how rapid and drastic the change was, here is a list of Britain’s number one singles for the first half of 1990:

13 January: New Kids On The Block – Hangin’ Tough (2 weeks)
27 January: Kylie Minogue – Tears On My Pillow (1 week)
3 February: Sinéad O’Connor – Nothing Compares 2 U (4 weeks)
3 March: Beats International ft Lindy Layton – Dub Be Good To Me (4 weeks)
31 March: Snap! – The Power (2 weeks)
14 April: Madonna – Vogue (4 weeks)
12 May: Adamski ft Seal – Killer (4 weeks)
9 June: England/New Order – World In Motion (2 weeks)
23 June: Elton John – Sacrifice/Healing Hands (5 weeks)

That remains a remarkable list. Some of these songs have yet to be discussed in Then Play Long, at least two of which will be in altered or re-recorded form, and there is a pleasing symmetry to the list, as Sinéad O’Connor covered “Sacrifice” rather brilliantly for the 1991 Elton/Taupin tribute album Two Rooms.

It couldn’t, of course, last. The backlash took hold immediately thereafter, and the rest of the year’s number ones included reissues from the seventies and sixties, a movie power ballad which its singer (and, at her insistence, co-writer) has essentially disowned, a somnolent Christmas song and three of the worst number ones of all time. There is only one new record – which we will discuss later in this tale – which I would not wish to consign to the skip.

But the changeover from Kylie – an actress acting the role of a pop singer – to Sinéad – a woman who has no choice but to sing – is the key moment here. Listening to this album, however, provokes amazement in me that it did actually get to number one – amazement in a good way, since this is perhaps the first rock record by a woman since Horses to state its case so firmly yet also so compassionately – and I wonder whether the seven million people who bought it, presumably expecting an album full of “Nothing Compares 2 U”s, were really prepared for its confessionals. Perhaps they looked at the cover, which cannot help but act as a comment on, or antidote to, …But Seriously (lyrics handwritten in black ink on a white background, the exact reverse of Collins’ approach), and not unreasonably thought that this was where the nineties started.

But “Nothing Compares 2 U” has to be dealt with first. Here is how I propose to deal with it.

My favourite Tintin book, in common with many readers, is Tintin In Tibet; certainly it was the most heartfelt of all Hergé's volumes. His friend Chang is flying to Europe to meet him, but he hears that there has been a terrible 'plane crash in the Himalayas, with all crew and passengers presumed killed. He is inconsolable yet still resolute. He attempts to come to terms with his grievous loss - he acts as though his right arm has been severed - but finds that the only way he can do so is, firstly, through dreams, wherein he sees Chang lying in the wreckage, injured but alive, crying for help, and secondly, through action, as he prepares to travel to the mountains to find him.

Everybody thinks he is mad or deluded or as blinded by grief as the Himalayan snowstorms would blind the unwary traveller. But he will not be dissuaded from his task - despite the overpowering sense of loss he has refused to accept death and will make every conceivable effort, and many inconceivable ones, to find that there is still life at the other end, despite all appearances.

Captain Haddock goes with him, grumpily complaining as ever - but still he goes with him, will not let him travel alone despite Tintin's howls that he will travel alone if necessary. The journey is hazardous and sometimes hopeless; even their sherpa and his crew eventually abandon them, afraid of the mythical yeti. This dread of the unseen "monster" - really a fear of the unknown, or of the future - gradually deepens throughout the story.

Eventually the yeti, huge and loud, emerges from behind a rock. It is an awesome and startling sight, but Tintin is keen enough to discern its true nature and knows that it too is afraid. He follows the yeti back to its cave - and there within the cave, wrapped in warm blankets with remnants of the small animals the yeti has brought back to keep him fed, is Chang, extremely weak but alive.

I don't think I need to underline at least one of the many analogies of this story. But Sinéad O'Connor has always struck me as a similar spirit; sometimes beaten, often abused and jeered at, but she continues to defy the onset of death, betrayal and loss even as she stares them in the face, as if to stare them down. She is noticeably less politic and far more prone to open bleeding than the fictional Belgian - but which other singers, male or female, were producing work in the order of The Lion And The Cobra in 1987/8, with its panting haemorrhages of passion thwarted ("Troy") or ravenously desired ("I Want Your (Hands On Me)"), its torrents of naked rage ("Jackie"), its rejection of nothingness ("Never Grow Old")? This was the flipside of Enya - everything enclosed in the Watermark world floods out into Sinéad's soul and onto the red page.

Ridiculed, threatened and boycotted for nothing more than believing things, expressing these beliefs and standing up for herself and those for whom she cares - for daring to be an Uppity Woman, even in the supposedly utopian and caring nineties - she shrugs some things off, screams away others. Her reading of Marley's "War" at the Dylan tribute gig was closer to the bruised heart of Dylan than any of the other politesse offered up that evening - and Neil Young, for one, knew it (as, presumably, did the author of "The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll" himself). On 1994's Universal Mother she includes home recordings of her infant son, a decade and more ahead of Aerial. Her 1992 covers album Am I Not Your Girl? - as with its bloody Celtic twin from the other end of the decade, Kevin Rowland's My Beauty - uses the songs of her life to tell her apparently unpalatable story; the breaking down on the acappella "Scarlet Ribbons," the Centipede-style free jazz eruption which climaxes "Success Has Made A Failure Of Our Home" - an outrageous and brilliant addition to that year's Top 20 singles chart, and it should have been number one for 16 weeks - the reading of "Don't Cry For Me Argentina" she remembered from her schooldays; it all makes her sense.

Because if you're going to attempt somebody else's song, and carry it off successfully, you have to insert yourself into it; you have to give the song something which only you could give to it, a route into its heart which no one else could hope to negotiate. So "Nothing Compares 2 U," a song Prince gave away to The Family, one of his shortlived Paisley Park Nearly-Hit Factory sidelines, in 1985, becomes in Sinéad's eyes, mouth and heart a different song entirely.

And Sinéad's "Nothing Compares 2 U," as it struggles with its nearly inexpressible emptiness, also becomes the first real number one of the nineties, a Massive Attack production in all but name. Nellee Hooper's production and Nick Ingman's arrangement are more minimal than anyone else dared get away with at the time, yet the record's depth is maximalist to its core; a simple but dense string line which does nothing much apart from stating the underlying basic chords of the song, with no embellishments or flourishes apart from a slow rise of the first violins in the instrumental break, drifting like admonitory clouds over Sinéad's grieving figure; a sparse piano; distant backing vocals like a Gregorian chain gang; and a 16 rpm hip hop beat with subtle embellishment from John Reynolds' live drums. Just as The Lion And The Cobra, through the involvement of Marco Pirroni and Kevin Mooney, helped mutate Antmusic into unexpected shapes, there is something of an umbilical link between Sinéad's "Nothing" and the Associates' "White Car In Germany" - the beats too deep and slow to seem real (is Paul Morley's Nothing the missing link between the two?).

The arrangement has to be minimal because Sinéad has to be in the foreground. Her vocal, though automatically double-tracked, is unobtrusive but unavoidable. Avoiding undue melismatics, but forceful when she needs to be ("GUESS WHAT HE TOLD ME?"), Sinéad's vocal asks nothing more than you listen and empathise.

And she grieves; the minutiae of ghastly bereavement ("It's been seven hours and fifteen days"), the initiation of wilful self-destruction ("I go out every night and sleep all day"), the forced gasp of suppressed liberation ("Since you've been gone I can do whatever I want"), but knowing throughout that all these transitory pleasures, or drugs ("I can eat my dinner in my fancy restaurant," "I could put my arms around every boy I see"), cannot begin to fill the unthinkable void, and neither can well-meaning but bland advice ("He said girl you better try to have fun no matter what you do...but he's a fool").

But for whom is she grieving?

The line "all the flowers that you planted, mama" is the song's true core of grief. Note that:
a) she doesn't change the gender;
b) she whimpers the word "mama" like an infant;
c) this is the precise point on the video when her tears become visible (the similarly minimalist video, the face and nothing but the face on a background of unfathomable blackness).

And this was where she started to think about her own mother, the mother who abused her beyond any rational endurance, and yet when her car crashed it was still like having an arm amputated without anaesthetic. "I know that living with you baby was sometimes hard/But I'm willing to give it another try" - is she putting words in her mother's mouth, paraphrasing her afterlife regret and hoped-for penance?

But she, Sinéad, is still willing to give life another try, declines to die, will not be dissuaded no matter how much shit is rained down upon her head or jammed into her heart; and so her "Nothing Compares 2 U" cut through all the jive bunnies, jovial teenpop cutouts and bogus AoR compassion which had preceded and still encircled it - its appearance at number one was a defiant and shocking bolt of thunder thrown into an arena of bland acceptance of business-as-usual, since business, the WORLD, just STOPS when you've lost someone, I mean, how DARE it CONTINUE...there is something about the record which gets as close as pop has ever dared to "the truth"...and no, if you know what that is, it doesn't require definition. Think of Sinéad struggling through the snow and cold, sometimes seemingly on the point of death, but refusing to stop until she finds the candle of life which she knows is glowing at the other side, at the entrance, after confronting apparent demons which are only bigger guides...back to life, however we do want it.

The rest of the album circles around these concerns. “Feel So Different,” set against a string chart which reminds you that if the Beatles had actually played “Eleanor Rigby” as a group it most likely would have been angry punk rock, begins with Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer, a passage most commonly used by entrants to Alcoholics Anonymous, before becoming an extended prayer of awe (and conversion, or re-conversion?) to God.

“The concept of ‘the value and dignity of the individual’ of which our modern culture has made so much is finally meaningful only in a religious dimension. It is constantly threatened by the same culture which wants to guarantee it. It is threatened whenever it is assumed that individual desires, hopes and ideals can be fitted with frictionless harmony into the collective purposes of man. The individual is not discrete. He cannot find his fulfilment outside of the community; but he also cannot find fulfilment completely within society. In so far as he finds fulfilment within society he must abate his individual ambitions. He must 'die to self' if he would truly live. In so far as he finds fulfilment beyond every historical community he lives his life in painful tension with even the best community, sometimes achieving standards of conduct which defy the standards of the community with a resolute ‘we must obey God rather than man.’”

“I Am Stretched On Your Grave” is Frank O’Connor and Philip King’s free variation on the anonymous seventeenth-century Irish poem “Táim sínte ar do thuama” set against the same “Funky Drummer” sample used on Fresh 4's “Wishing On A Star” with only Steve Wickham’s fiddle as accompaniment to the singer’s maternal mourning; while it is not surprising that this was soon remixed by Hank Shocklee and that Sinéad should align herself with hip hop, it again begs the question – as does the far more acute and hurting “You Cause As Much Sorrow” – of how a bereaved person is supposed to act, what they are supposed to do, the memory from which they struggle to free themselves.

“We take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilisation. We must exercise our power. But we ought neither to believe that a nation is capable of perfect disinterestedness in its exercise, nor become complacent about a particular degree of interest and passion which corrupt the justice by which the exercise of power is legitimatised.”

The state of the world is in large part subsidiary to the singer’s own emotional crises. Hence the mother of “Three Babies” turns up again, in the third person, two songs later, on “Black Boys On Moped,” another song whose lyric has unfortunately failed to date (“These are dangerous days/To say what you feel is to dig your own grave”), her main concern is getting her son out of Thatcher’s Britain so that he doesn’t have to witness this pain, or even know that it exists, and the role of the family again rises to the fore in the rear sleeve photograph of the parents of Colin Roach – to whose family the album is dedicated. His parents stand, mournful and silently angry, in the rain beside a photograph of their son; the picture is captioned “God's place is the world; but the world is not God's place.”

“Our dreams of bringing the whole of human history under the control of the human will are ironically refuted by the fact that no group of idealists can easily move the pattern of history toward the desired goal of peace and justice. The recalcitrant forces in the historical drama have a power and persistence beyond our reckoning.”

As far as her personal life is concerned, it is fair to say that nobody really knows or understands how she feels. The fairweather friends whom she mentions in the course of “Feel So Different” re-emerge in “The Emperor’s New Clothes” but so do relationship difficulties; these escalate (“Jump In The River”) and culminate in the largely blank “The Last Day Of Our Acquaintance,” a divorce song of which Tammy Wynette would have been proud – “largely” because when the song seems to have run its course, Jah Wobble’s bass and Reynolds’ drums thunder into view and Sinéad’s voice threatens to become a scream (her performance throughout the record is uncanny, often switching from damnation to sweetness (and back) in the space of one line.

“Our dreams of a pure virtue are dissolved in a situation in which it is possible to exercise the virtue of responsibility toward a community of nations only by courting the prospective guilt of the atomic bomb.”

But at last we are left with her voice, and her voice alone; she is the wayfaring stranger, knowing only that she has to escape, get as far away from her life as she can. She is not daunted by the thought of walking through the desert – as long as she keeps near the sea. It is all metaphorical, as the song’s navy blue bird makes clear, but unlike Lorca’s hapless, dying horseman struggling to reach Cordoba, there isn’t really any doubt that eventually she’ll make it. The title song is folk as Anne Briggs would know it – the purity of the voice (although the bird warns her not to become too pure), the singularity of her intent, even (as Lena suggested) something of Lorca’s duende (perhaps both metaphysically and mythologically). Galaxies away from the First World teen problems of Kylie, and recorded at the same age as Van Morrison when he made Astral Weeks – as Bangs would have said, there is a lifetime behind this record (later in 1990 Morrison himself sings, or drawls, when asked about enlightenment, “I don’t know what it is – it’s up to you”) – I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got remains startling, sublime and unmatched.

“Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we are saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own; therefore, we are saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”

(All italicised quotes are taken from The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niebuhr, first published in 1952)

Next: nothing has changed.