Sinead O’Connor walks the fine line between faith and skepticism every time she makes an LP. Maybe that’s why it’s been six years since her last one. On 1994’s Universal Mother, O’Connor laced righteous indignation with New Age-style spiritual redemption, cultivating that paradox across 14 hit-or-miss tracks that mostly missed. Germaine Greer kick-started the record with a pocket lecture on feminism (“I do think that women could make politics irrelevant by a kind of spontaneous cooperative action”), but, ironically, the album peaked with a cover of Kurt Cobain’s self-flagellating “All Apologies.” Universal Mother drew a mixed reaction from both fans and critics (as did 1997’s Gospel Oak EP), but you had to give O’Connor credit for conceptual range: She was brilliantly inconsistent.
As was the case with Cobain, the subtext of just about every word O’Connor sings is: Look, I’m trying really hard to keep it together here, OK? So could you please just work with me for once? Her legendary outsized provocations frequently overshadow the music she makes. Frank Sinatra, for instance, once famously threatened to “kick her ass” for refusing to play a New Jersey venue where “The Star-Spangled Banner” would precede her performance. But the same intensity that inspires O’Connor to, say, tear up the pope’s picture on live TV informs almost all of her songs—on O’Connor’s records, even the ballads seethe. She’s contemptuous but needy, intelligent but sometimes painfully naive, and she never shrinks from making ambitious demands of her audience. At her best, though, O’Connor rewards that indulgence with genuinely moving music, and on the new Faith and Courage, the singer is mostly at her best.
The disc opens hypnotically, with “The Healing Room,” a swaying meditation on the “universe inside me” that adds a layer of urgency with each verse. Over an elastic hiphop groove that threatens repeatedly to disintegrate, O’Connor whispers prayerful words behind her own lead vocal, on a neat bit of studio craft that gives the track both rhythmic and melodic counterpoints. Elsewhere, the sound of children laughing bubbles to the surface, a potentially cloying sound effect that actually blends perfectly with the song’s aural and thematic atmospherics. The words are simple—almost simplistic—but O’Connor infuses them with a finger-pointing directness: “You have a little voice inside you,” she sings. “It doesn’t matter who you think you may be.”
The LP’s most raucous song, “Daddy I’m Fine,” is also its sweetest. A three-minute love letter to her father, the track surveys O’Connor’s “big fat plan,” chronicling her transformation from badass boarding school dropout to badass chart-topping Londoner. The track alternates between a seesawing dub loop (courtesy of ex-PIL bassist Jah Wobble) and careening fuzz-punk as O’Connor chants her history: “I’m going away to London/I got myself a big fat plan/Gonna be a singer in a rock ‘n’ roll band/And I’m gonna change everything I can.” The words are prosaic but powerful, and it’s a testament to O’Connor’s spiritual conviction that, later in the song, she’s able to make the line “I wanna fuck every man in sight” sound more redemptive than salacious.
Throughout Faith and Courage, O’Connor seems preoccupied with conversion—from dropout to pop star, from religious skeptic to borderline believer, from relationship casualty to spiritual lover. To this point, her career has played out the tension between those poles, with the singer finding her truest inspiration mainly in doubt and anger. It’s heartening to hear O’Connor—now a mother of two in her mid-30s—finally making some headway toward resolution, particularly when it enables her to undercut a mean self-righteous streak with beatific acceptance. “Jealous” is an example, a languid breakup song in which the pissed-off protagonist insists that she would have stayed. Over the top of a slow-motion, cinema-sized hook, O’Connor explains, “I would have stayed if you’d wanted/I would have been willing/But you said I treat you so badly/I can’t be forgiven.” Later, she says goodbye, but tentatively: “So if you’re gonna go you’ve gotta go and if you’re staying stay.”
O’Connor could as easily be talking to the fans who’ve abandoned her in droves over her extracurricular exploits. For some listeners, she will always be the bare-headed, pope-hating, now-she’s-a-radical-priest they love to loathe. And O’Connor, for her part, doesn’t do much to dispel that view. The release of Faith and Courage, for instance, roughly coincides with the singer’s statement that—boyfriends, husband, and babies aside—she’s actually been a lesbian all along. Unhappy accident? Not likely. O’Connor has a habit of making her provocative statements at just the wrong moment, because of an admirable career-spiting reflex that’s earned her the ridicule and scorn of unenlightened music bizzers and former fans alike.
But the most outlandish thing about Faith and Courage is that it isn’t outlandish at all. It’s a return to the radio-ready form of the singer’s earlier work, a powerful collection of songs that’s far more contemplative than combative. A soulful pop album that never wanders too close to Lilithland, Faith and Courage takes the resolution of doubt (about religion and relationships, pop and politics) as its theme. On the evidence here, O’Connor hasn’t completely reconciled her courageous spirit with her faith, but she’s getting close. CP