The Sinead O'Connor of yore may have scoffed at the passive title of her new album, "How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?" After all, the stormy Irish singer did anything but go with the flow during her reign in the early 1990s.
She shaved her head to defy old-school rules about women, incurred the wrath of Madonna by tearing up a photo of the pope on "Saturday Night Live" and refused to perform at a New Jersey venue if the American national anthem was played. Along the way she won a Grammy in 1991 but boycotted the awards show, proclaimed herself a lesbian (then decided she wasn't) and doggedly waved the flag for every oppressed minority that had ever suffered the slings and arrows.
FOR THE RECORD:
Sinead O'Connor: In the Feb. 21 Calendar section, an article about Sinead O'Connor quoted the singer as saying that the songs on her new album, "How About I Be Me (And You Be You)," are "pretty much" about the man who is the father of her youngest child. The article identified that man as John Reynolds. Reynolds is the father of her oldest child. The man to whom O'Connor was referring is Frank Bonadio. —
But things are different now. O'Connor, 45, sports a new and rather massive Jesus Christ chest tattoo and seems to have matured a bit –– like a fine wine, not a piece of cheese, thanks. "I'm at an age when you feel comfortable with who you are," O'Connor said by phone from her home in Dublin. "When you're young it's quite scathing, and very confusing. I wouldn't wish it on anyone."
"How About I Be Me" is O'Connor's ninth studio album in a 25-year career that launched with her first hit, 1987's "Mandinka," and the 1990 album "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got." Alongside collaborations with Peter Gabriel, Massive Attack and the Chieftains, O'Connor's records have ranged from themed works on the Scriptures to albums of Rasta tunes and classic torch songs. Yet the new CD is a roller-coaster ride over largely personal affairs centering on love, sex and family, spiked with piquant observations on the ravages of drugs and the child abuse scandals plaguing the Roman Catholic Church.
It's all fire and joy, in bravura performances of semi-conflicting impulses best heard in her cover of John Grant's "Queen of Denmark," a withering litany of faults directed at someone else –– and at herself: "You put me in this cage and threw away the key…. Why don't you take it out on somebody else?"
"I would have been in the past inclined to be my own terrible judge, beatin' the ... out of myself," O'Connor said. "I see the song as the other part of me fighting that part off."
O'Connor's newfound sentimentality is at odds with our image of Sinead the big-mouthed warrior. The blithely girlish "Old Lady" ("One day he'll say 'That's my girl,' and make me laugh like an idiot") and nostalgia-drenched "Very Far From Home" emanate from a belated realization that saving the world from itself is equally important as really going for what she wants.
"Yeah," she said wryly, "it's a kind of new thing for me. I don't think I've really done love songs before."
But O'Connor, who plays L.A. for the first time in several years at El Rey (she was scheduled to play Monday and Tuesday) , isn't going all domestic and soft on us. But her vantage point has shifted to a place where neither love nor life's bigger schemes can be viewed as black or white.
"Well, the record was written between 2007 and 2009, when I was going out with a man who I'm still very best mates with [John Reynolds, who produced the album], the father of my youngest child, and the songs are pretty much all about him," she said. "One of the great things about him, and our little son is the same, is that no matter if something bad happens, they find something amusing about it. It's like they have these glasses on that everything's funny through."
A seasoned (some might say wiser) perspective on matters of the heart allowed O'Connor to write and sing several of the album's songs in character, lending a chameleonic effect in the vocal tour de force "Back Where You Belong" ("If I love someone, I might lose someone").
Yet the recovering druggie of "Reason With Me" is not, she insists, O'Connor herself, though she sings his story as if keenly identifying with it. Obviously, what with news stories about O'Connor's tempestuous love life (her recent marriage in Las Vegas to Barry Herridge lasted a little under three weeks) or Twitter-fueled rumors of drug problems (she tried to score some weed –– not crack cocaine –– on her wedding night), one could assume that these songs hit close to home.
"No," she says with a hearty laugh. "'Reason With Me' was about a friend of mine who's a workaholic, not a drug addict. You know, there can be the obvious addictions, like drugs or sex or whatever, then you have other ones like working a lot or isolating yourself. A world full of people, and an awful lot of people are lonely. I identify with those people."
"How About I Be Me's" harmonic strokes and textured instrumentation add both urgency and calm to O'Connor's tone of empathy, even when the deeply religious Sinead rears her reshaved head to heap scorn on the Vatican and on those who'd stay mum regarding the sins of the fathers. "Take Off Your Shoes" finds the Holy Spirit his/herself ripping on the pope: "I plead the blood of Jesus over you … and every ... thing you do."
"V.I.P." castigates Irish artists (including, reportedly, Bono and Bob Geldof) who declined to support O'Connor's campaign to challenge the Vatican on child abuse: "To whom exactly are we giving hope? / When we stand behind the velvet rope / Getting our pictures taken with the pope / Like some sick April fool kind of joke."
In her defense of home, heart and humanity, O'Connor sees herself as a sentinel over Ireland's highest ideals –– and, with no apologies, a fierce protector of her own happiness. "I come from a tradition of Irish artists where I am principally concerned with affecting my society. Artists are supposed to act as an emergency fire service when it comes to spiritual conflict –– not preaching or telling people what to do but being a little light that tells us that there is a spirit world. That's all anyone has to do."