(One Little Indian)
It’s five years since the last Sinéad O’Connor album, the idiosyncratically God-bothering collection of modern hymns Theology. Since then, she’s turned more towards bothering God’s alleged representatives on earth, becoming perhaps the church’s most outspoken celebrity critic following the 2009 Murphy Report into the cover-up of institutionalised child abuse in Ireland’s Catholic schools.
That appalling episode furnishes the trigger for “Take Off Your Shoes”, a furious fusillade of disgust in which the church is lambasted for taking Jesus’s name not just in vain, but “into infamy”. “I bleed the blood of Jesus over you, and over every fucking thing you do,” she declaims, with steely determination. Later on, “V.I.P.” closes the album with a quiet excoriation of fellow Irish celebrities too meek to criticise religious hypocrisy alongside her. Recited in almost hymnal manner over a steady string pad, it quietly but firmly mocks their appropriation of the term “very important person”. “My view is, as artists, don’t wave your fucking Grammy around going on about believing in God,” she fulminates in the press release, “if you’re not prepared to stand in the street and fight for the honour of God in your own country when your church has been raping little boys.” Now, who do you suppose she can mean?
But lest it appear that this, her best album in about a decade, should be entirely fuelled by anger, the pleasant surprise is how relatively brimful it is with bonhomie and empathy, some at least prompted by her recent wedding. Set to Justin Adams’ springy, African-flavoured guitar, the opener “4th and Vine” finds her giddily anticipating the big day, and celebrating the warmth and kindness of her husband-to-be. His gifts are further eulogised in the single “The Wolf Is Getting Married”, where even the rolling, cyclical organ and guitar groove seems exultant as she gushes how even terrible events can be overcome with the strength of his smile. Ever since the tearful video for “Nothing Compares 2 U”, she’s been so much pop’s living embodiment of suffering and reproach that it’s quite shocking to hear her in such good cheer.
Elsewhere, her empathic gifts are brilliantly utilised in articulating the diverse emotional quandaries of the thieving junkie in “Reason with Me”, the dead soldier singing to his son in “Back Where You Belong”, and the single mother abandoned by the child’s married father in “I Had a Baby”, who triumphantly discovers that motherhood is “the making of me”. And her natural tendency towards reproach finds fruitful outlet in John Grant’s angry, tragi-comic kiss-off “Queen of Denmark”. Throughout, the settings have the punch and aptness that sometimes went astray in her Rastafarian period, while her delivery is always perfectly pitched and beautifully poised, from the gentle murmurs of “V.I.P.” and “Queen of Denmark” to the harmonies so delicately layered over the later stages of “Old Lady”. There may be more high-profile comebacks in 2012, but none, I’ll warrant, as feisty, fresh and confident as this.