It has been my experience ever since I could pass for 21 and sneak into bars that pubs, watering holes, and cafes were a place to wax poetic and exchange ideas. It was precisely in one of these gathering places that I engaged somebody who described Sinead O’Connor as “a hero” and asserted that the general public should – and one day would – regard her as such. She was, of course, referring to O’Connor’s famously misinterpreted Saturday Night Live protest against physical and sexual abuse in Irish Catholic schools, which involved her ripping up a picture of Pope John Paul II. Controversy aside, O’Connor is one of those singers who is so charismatic and emotional that she invokes an unspeakable catharsis every time I hear her voice. She has joined the lonely ranks of Nina Simone and Otis Redding in that regard. Unlike Simone and Redding, though, O’Connor’s music is inseparable from her message. (In this, she is more akin to Bob Marley and Woody Guthrie.) I feel so strongly on this point that I understand my writing of this review as, in the very least, an implicit endorsement of much of her activism.
This marriage of song and message is exceedingly apparent on 2007’s Theology. The words “If God lived on Earth, people would break his windows,” taken from the song “Out Of The Depths,” is written one word at a time on every page in the album’s liner notes. Likewise, O’Connor delves into esoteric Hebrew references and metaphor, not surprising considering her long-term interest in Rastafari beliefs. Most, if not all, of her metaphors are difficult for me to understand. Take the flowing, folksy “Dark I Am Yet Lovely,” in which O’Connor implores: “Dark I am yet lovely as tents of Kedar / As the pavilions of Solomon either / Don’t hate me because the sun has darkened me.” Remember, this is not O’Connor reciting a Psalm; these words were penned by the artist herself. It seems that O’Connor is attempting to convey a sense of spiritual wonder and struggle, although I sense that this is just a preliminary interpretation. While not fully adept to her meaning, I still found the music enjoyable and moving.
Musically, Theology is structured differently than any other album I’ve heard. It includes two discs (the Dublin Sessions and the London Sessions) with both mainly containing varying interpretations of the same songs. London Sessions is her pop album. Produced by RonTom with Up In Ear Productions, London Sessions features a full band, a string section, and drum programming. Its music styles range from acoustic rock to hip-hop. While at times over-produced and drawn out, accounting for the B+ rating, London Sessions is a solid album with some the most impacting drum and bass production I have heard in years.
It is in Dublin Sessions that O’Connor really shines, though. Featuring only guitars and vocals, O’Connor’s evocative singing pierces the heart with unspeakable joy. There are two songs in particular (“The Glory of Jah” and “Rivers Of Babylon”) in which O’Connor’s singing is almost unbearably beautiful, warranting me to pause the recording for a break. While producer Steve Cooney and engineer Graham Bolger were adept at capturing the acoustic depth of O’Connor’s voice, the clarity, precision, and power of the songs rely solely on her abilities.
Because of Theology’s lyrical depth and obscure sound, the album may be difficult for many to grasp. By including two versions of Curtis Mayfield’s “We People Who Are Darker Than Blue,” O’Connor reminds us that she is not the first artist to write music steeped in symbolism. This does not make the task of interpreting her songs less daunting. With the resurfacing of the issue she protested on Saturday Night Live in 1992, and with it a slew of interviews with and op-eds from the singer/songwriter, it feels good to again engage the complexity and beauty of Sinead O’Connor’s music and message.