|Sinead O'Connor - Collaborations|
|Music Disc Reviews Audio CD|
|Written by Charles Andrews|
|Tuesday, 21 June 2005|
Every time you think it’s safe to go back in the water, bam! Up pops Sinead again. She’s quitting show biz, she’s coming back, she’s going folk, she’s going reggae, she’s going straight, she’s having a baby, she’s having a nervous breakdown, she’s discovered she’s Irish, she’s dissing Dice, she’s hiding from Frank Sinatra, she’s ordained a priest, she’s ditching the Grammies, she’s Kate Bush, she’s Bob Marley, she’s got a new picture of a new pope. Never does she show up with the one thing I’ve been waiting for: a new haircut. Oh, and maybe a sense of humor.
But she does have a new album, that isn’t new, and though I’m never sure what Sinead believes in even though I’m sure she believes it passionately, Collaborations has made a believer out of me.
I’ve always respected her, for the occasional brilliant song (1990’s smash album I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got was spotty), for my enduring suspicion that greatness lurks behind her lack of focus, and for having more artistic and personal integrity than just about everyone. But I was never sure how good a singer she was and Collaborations has given me new respect for that voice, and for her artistic choices, with the caveat that this is a collection of her recordings with others that ranges over almost 20 years, so they’re not today’s choices, and they are other people’s songs. But it does reveal a consistency of excellence over three decades that’s impressive. With some performers, you’d be trying to figure out what this odd release means at this time, but for O’Connor, it’s likely just business as usual. Based on her history, you’d assume it’s just what she decided to do next, without it being an indication of a career move. (She either disdains those, or is the world’s absolute worst at choosing them.)
The album has 17 songs and bangs right up against the limits of CD capacity with just seconds short of 80 minutes of music, yet there isn’t a true throw-away throughout. I thought the last two were, the first few times I listened. “Monkey in Winter” has fairly corny lyrics and sounds like nothing more than O’Connor auditioning to take Martha Davis’ place in the Motels circa early ‘80s, but it’s such a catchy melody and arrangement that it may be the one you find yourself humming the next day. Just when you’re done wondering about a song with lyrics like “Coffee pot on a burnin’ stove/The Christmas tree in a place called home….you are a lizard in the sun,” “All Kinds of Everything” starts up like fairies cavorting medievally around a scarf-festooned carousel, with artless simple-minded lyrics so really truly bad that you think it must be a joke. And it is. It won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1970 – you should know that this awards show honors the lamest dreck imaginable, is 100 times worse than our Grammy Awards ever were, and hasn’t improved in 50 years. She did both songs with Terry Hall, ex-Specials singer, and though I thought it was so mildly amusing that it was a waste of time, I guess if O’Connor wants to throw less than three minutes out of 80 into a send-up, it’s okay by me, considering how good most of the rest of the album is.
The first six cuts are all pretty dense, somewhat cheerless in tone, with much Middle Eastern influence, even some reggae beats and touches thrown in. (And yes, Willie, she’ll be releasing a reggae album this summer. But listen up, cowboy: she went to Kingston, not L.A., to record it, and most importantly, she nabbed the legendary Sly and Robbie to produce. She chose to record some of reggae's most famous protest songs – Bob Marley's "War," Peter Tosh's "Downpressor Man," and Burning Spear's "Marcus Garvey" – which is consistent with her public persona. But it could be really weird. I can’t wait.)
The proceedings start strongly with the swirling synths of Massive Attack’s “Special Cases,” and even though this album showcases O’Connor’s admittedly limited versatility, she does seem perfectly suited vocally for this kind of song, and even more for the next, “1000 Mirrors” by Asian Dub Foundation, where her voice is buried less and becomes the star element.
Then come probably the two best numbers of the collection: the musically simple and plodding (good things, in this case) and politically powerful “Empire,” by U.K. dancemeisters Bomb the Bass, given contrast and gravitas by the mellifluous basso pronouncements of dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah, and the even more simple “Guide Me God” by Ghostland, which became an international dance hit in its ’02 remix. Jaci Velasquez (reviewed last month) and other devotional performers, take note: with simple, repetitive but mesmerizing and seductive music, and two lines of lyrics repeated over and over, O’Connor sings the surrender of spiritual devotion coming not from weakness, confusion and desperation, but from strength, clarity and visionary seeking. Just a bit more attractive, reaching a wider audience, and, you can dance to it (well, sway).
Jah Wobble’s “Visions of You” has touches of Indian music, and more of the inspired plodding beat, continued in spirit by Afro Celt Sound System’s “Release,” which adds Celtic references to the mix. Somewhat of a turn is then taken, right after the little Madame Butterfly opening, with a cover of the naughty “Wake Up and Make Love with Me,” by the late Ian Drury, performed here with his band The Blockheads. The U2 number, “I’m Not Your Baby,” from the ’97 Wim Wenders film “The End of Violence,” with Sinead and Bono exchanging not-niceties, falls surprisingly flat, as does the The The number (I just had to write that), “Kingdom of Rain.” The song (“Heroine”) she did for a 1986 soundtrack with U2’s the Edge is only slightly more interesting, displaying the teen O’Connor’s developing vocal chops. Conjure One’s lovely “Tears from the Moon” should’ve been the Peter Gabriel song, because she’s not much of a presence on the actual one, “Blood of Eden.” The Moby and Aslan songs are only okay, but then Irish folkie Damien Dempsey makes it real with “It’s All Good,” his thick accent, roughhewn delivery and building energy contrasting nicely with O’Connor’s gentility.
There’s no reason to expect blazing rockers out of Sinead O’Connor, but the sameness of tempo through nearly an hour and a half could’ve used some variety. Still, this oddball collection of 17 songs from other people’s albums, many unheard up to now by most in the U.S., holds together nicely, is enjoyable from start to finish with no real clunkers, and could give you a new appreciation for the bad girl from Dublin.
Because you have 17 different productions here, over nearly 20 years of advancing technology, it’s hard to make sweeping statements. But whoever assembled this (my advance copy had incomplete information) did a fine job of making it sound like it was all recorded in the same studio, last month. Some songs feature Sinead’s vocals strongly, others float her in the ether, and on a couple she’s barely a presence to the featured artist. Many of her recordings have downplayed her vocal instrument into the mix, but there are a few here that demonstrate just what a strong singer she is. There aren’t a lot of guitars; mostly you swim the 80 minutes in dark currents of electronics and synthesizers, but the first half of the album has some irresistible beats pushing the river.