Universal Mother

Sinead O'Connor

Ensign/Chrysalis, 1994

REVIEW BY: Michael R. Smith

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 02/24/2008

When Sinead O’Connor’s misguided covers album, Am I Not Your Girl, flopped, many in the music industry felt as though her career had stalled. And then on Saturday Night Live when she tore up a picture of the Pope (whom she referred to as the enemy), society turned up their collective noses on her seemingly for good. To sabotage herself so effectively, it must have taken every fiber of Sinead’s being and every ounce of courage to get back up on her own two feet and create what very well may be her finest album ever, Universal Mother.

On this, her fourth proper release, Sinead O’Connor bares her soul completely and explores what it means to be a woman and a mother. The a cappella number “Tiny Grief Song” is the most autobiographical of the lot and tells us everything we need to know about how troubled her life has always been. With other angry statement songs like “Fire On Babylon,” she places the bulk of the blame squarely on her own abusive mother, who had perished in a 1985 car accident. Sinead also sheds some light on how difficult life in Ireland was back when she was a child with the track “Famine.” Her fury over how she has been raked over the coals by the public at large is unleashed on the succinct “Red Football,” where she equates her mistreatment to being like a caged animal taunted on a daily basis.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

You would think that with all the venom and bile being spewed forth, Universal Mother would have ended up as an unmitigated disaster. But it wasn’t. It went platinum. There were still plenty of folks who admired her audacious political statements and even more music fans who felt she was still the female artist with the most substance and talent. The world was curious to see how Sinead was going to scratch and claw her way out of the mess she had gotten herself into.

At any rate, what she had to say on this album wasn’t as important as how she said it. From the powerful tenor of her newfound voice, it was apparent that Sinead O’Connor was back stronger than before. She now had a son to bring up into this cold and foreboding world and was going to see to it that he was going to experience the happiness and security that had somehow always eluded her.

Sinead sojourns on as the warrior goddess by first paying respects to a fallen comrade, the only other person who knew just what she was going through – Kurt Cobain – on a haunting acoustic remake of his song “All Apologies.” It is her unique way of making amends with us (and coming to terms with her fame) so that she can finally move on. We shudder to think that she could have ended up the way Kurt did, though on “A Perfect Indian” when she sings the chilling line, “There’s only one way to be free,” we get the sense that she must have come mighty close. 

Themes of innocence, forgiveness and belief in a higher power abound on the series of poignant piano ballads that are to follow, culminating on the gospel-flavored track “In This Heart.” When all is said and done, Sinead herself is left with a surprising feeling of appreciation, especially for those who had stood by her through it all, and she shows her gratitude with the inspiring closer “Thank You For Hearing Me.”

Despite all of her missteps and transgressions, Sinead O’Connor still has a place reserved just for her in the annals of rock and roll history. The couplet “John I Love You/My Darling Child” has a tempo and melody that is as unpredictable and mercurial as her own personality, making it an even bigger masterpiece than her sole #1 hit “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Piano and strings have never been utilized so effectively. It is just one of the many revelations to be found on Universal Mother, an album that proved to be Sinead O’Connor’s last stand and a final opportunity for her to really shine. Sinead’s resilient belief in herself should serve as an example to all of us who have ever felt ostracized or persecuted by others. In this particular case, karma turned out to be a bigger bitch than she could ever aspire to be.

Rating: A

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© 2008 Michael R. Smith and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Ensign/Chrysalis, and is used for informational purposes only.