Tuesday, May 7, 2013

SINEAD O'CONNOR, Hammersmith Odeon, London
Melody Maker, January 2 1988

by Simon Reynolds

So, Nina Simone’s “My Baby Just Cares For Me”*--the clubland secret, the cult trophy--went High Street provincial, Top Ten Top Shop. A monopoly on suffering invested in soul/jazz/gospel, by a London hipster elite over five years ago, has now been installed as a pop cultural hegemony. I like to think that the massive success of “My Baby Just Cares” indicates the final exhaustion of the process (carried through by Absolute Beginners, The Style Council, Alison Moyet’s “That Ole Devil Called Love”, Working Week, the risible Carmel and her “ba da da oh yeahs”, Swans Way, countless copyists, endless reissues) whereby “vintage” jazz-and-soul have become both an oppressive model of authenticity and a LUDICROUS SEPIA CARTOON. I can’t get to this music anymore, can’t cut through the dense cloud of signifiers, the berets, the suits, the cigarette smoke…

What fascinates me now is a certain troubled space, a potential, that has recurred in AOR over the years. Not a “period”--I have no knowledge, no images (bar details one prefers to shut out of the mind: capes, long beats, sideburns, facial hair) and thus no nostalgia. The traces of real desperation in Fleetwood Mac’s “Little Lies” have plunged me into vertiginous retrospective fascination with the dolorous languor of Stevie Nicks (“Dreams”, “Gold Dust Woman”, “Gypsy”) and other mysterious figures like John Martyn, Sandy Denny, Roy Harper. The West Coast sound (from which followed both UK folk-rock and American AOR/FM-oriented soft-rock) came about when folkies like Jefferson Airplane went electric without any intervening period of involvement in R&B. I think Sinead O’Connor must have made a similar leap.

She takes the attractiveness of AOR and turns it into beauty, through her voice and her subject matter. She makes the A in AOR stand for ‘adolescence’, a phase that’s both more embarrassing and more noble than the even keel of adulthood. Similarly, her voice combines awkwardness and grandeur.

It’s a voice that burns like ice: like Grace Slick, the prototype for all ice queens, it goes through you like a lance of stalactite. Unlike your Tina Turners, pain is not signified by gritty timbre, exaggerated tremulousness or a heave from the gut; like her ghost-folk peers, the voice is pure and clear, and emotional disarray is expressed in swerves, catches, lapses, somersaults, abrupt leaps between octaves. On “Mandinko” Sinead towers, then collapses immaculately, like a house of cards; on “Never Get Old”, there’s an exquisite shudder, almost like tape drop out. Sinead’s voice is majestic but never robust, like Lennox or Armatrading; rather, it’s harrowed but defiant.

Kristin Hersh has described what she does as a real female violence. Women bottle up their anger, turn it inwards, sometimes as self-mutilation. Sinead O’Connor’s work is an exorcism of all that. It’s music that’ll appeal to girls who want to be different rather than normal, boys who think problems are more attractive than strengths, and anyone who believes suffering imparts depth.

The gig was marred a little by a lack of atmosphere: the philistine fans of headliner INXS’s Noo Wave techno-rock preferred to loiter in the lobby, her band are able but faceless, and Sinead herself seemed a little sullen--a thin, pale figure in punky tartan. But when she got into it, the results were spellbinding, in particular the sublime “Never Get Old”, her voice traversing a terrain wherein met Tim Buckley, Clannad, Ofra Haza, ECM’s languid Scandinavian neo-jazz, Liz Frazer and raga. Never mind. Autonomy has rarely been so seductive.

* of course I loved and love the Simone song (who doesn't? who couldn't? it's a bit like "Say A Little Prayer For You" in that respect) and today would much rather hear it for the umpteenth time than anything on Sinead's debut.

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