Monthly Archives: July 2014
Throughout the ups and downs of her career and personal life over her past 27 years in the music business, Sinéad O’Connor’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.
After a song about self-perservation, the bleak, fearful and haunting ‘Where Have You Been?’ explores an insecure woman’s instinctive gut reaction to the alienation she sees in her lover’s eyes.
The album’s final track, ‘Streetcars’, stands out, not only because of its lyrical beauty, but because it’s the only song 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.
So, it’s not shocking to me that I only got to Day 8 with my Daily Writes series. I had great intentions, but not a huge amount of time or headspace, given that I’m working a full-time job that’s all about writing, and writing a novel in my spare time. Writing about writing every day on top of that was too much, so I went in the other direction and put my blog out of my mind altogether, mostly so I could concentrate on what was turning out to be a very difficult third book to write. Not that any book is easy to write, but I was facing different challenges and fears with this one than I did with the previous two novels.
Essentially my big worry was story. Having written two novels that had strong concepts as the narrative driving force, I’m now writing a book that doesn’t have a concept and is essentially about a relationship between two people and how forces beyond them affect it. My big fear was (and is) that I won’t be able to get the reader to keep turning the pages. In my previous books, literally every 1,000 words, I posed some sort of question so the reader would want to see what happens next, and in writing this one I felt I didn’t have enough action for those questions to pop up.
I’m trying to let go of having to rely action – the desire for big things to happen and obstacles to propel my protagonist’s story forward. This is a quiet story, and I have to trust that my reader will be so invested in my characters that they will want to see what happens to them without being prodded along with the ‘what happens next?’ structure. I am two-thirds way through my first draft, and in the process am getting to know and deeply care about my characters, and I want to see what happens to them (at this point, I don’t know how this book is going to end). I’m hoping this will translate to my editor, and after a couple more drafts, to my readers.
I had the great pleasure of interviewing Nicky and Rod from the Broadway hit, Avenue Q, which comes to Dublin this month. I had plenty to ask them about the gay rumours that surround them, but first of all I wanted to get their opinions about similar rumours that have surrounded Sesame Street’s Ernie and Bert.
Listen to the full interview here!