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Sinead O’Connor Meets Senescence with Sass on ‘I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss’

SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: August 12, 2014
Label: Nettwerk

Sinead O’Connor has made a career out of polarizing. That may sound like a given for an artist who’s almost as known for her Papal-picture-ripping and on-again-off-again-marrying as for her music-making. A penchant for extremes is a common trait, maybe even a strategy, for a young singer making her way into the spotlight. But how does a middle-aged artist who’s outlived the alt-angst era she came of age in translate that into a long-term artistic plan? Tone it down too much, and she loses relevance. Keep living at extremes and she risks alienating a maturing fanbase.

This is the moment in which 2014 Sinead dwells—and one her tenth album, the rather perfectly titled I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss, explores and exposes every angle and crevice of. Bossy is complicated and multi-faceted, nuzzling excruciating vulnerability right up to voracious ferocity, swinging between swaggering blues, soul-searching adult-alt and lullabies that can feel like attacks. One moment might sound like Sinead at her most confident, her most self-aware (the swaggering “Kisses Like Mine”). Others stagger off into vague yet somehow still preachy expressions of spirituality (“Take Me to Church,” a strange yet so-Sinead choice for a single). In other words, it’s just the kind of album one might expect from an artist whose version of “settling down” mid-career involved writing an inflammatory open letter to Miley Cyrus that turned into an all-out culture war.

And so we have an album that opens with “How About I Be Me (and You Be You)” (a riff on her last album title), an easy lite-rock track with a self-helpish feel, airy references to being a “real full woman,” a bit of introspective piano, and a hint of driving U2 shimmer about it. The track is squarely adult-alt, but just when you think you’ve got Sinead-at-album-ten’s number, she rips into “Dense Water Deeper Down,” a blues-rock barnburner that’s doused in equal parts Irish whiskey and Kentucky bourbon. Then there’s “The Vishnu Room,” a sighing, slow-drawn paean to love and peace that makes you wonder if perhaps the Hindu deity’s abode isn’t more of a tantric sex chamber.

Stylistic vacillation aside, Celt-crossed blues-rock and its offshoots are something of a constant on I’m the Boss. Besides “Dense Water,” there’s also “Kisses Like Mine,” the salty siren song “The Voice of My Doctor,” and “James Brown,” a lightly funk-fried duet with Seun Kuti that, other than the occasional West African blues lick, doesn’t highlight the Nigerian Afro-beat legacy’s abilities nearly enough. It’s a good fit for Sinead’s stance, particularly her positioning of herself as a force-to-be-reckoned-with alt-pop lioness (or, perhaps more accurately, den mother).

Vocally, Sinead doesn’t quite have the chops to pull off blues maven. Her voice has always sounded a bit like something from a faerie realm, encompassing everything from lilting, whimsical sweetness to Puckish playfulness to intimidating, sometimes terrifying snarls (that would be the dark side of faerie-dom). With age, it’s gotten even more ephemeral—it sounds downright wispy, for instance, next to the aggressive electric guitar of “Dense Water Deeper Down.” She compensates on many tracks with a host of strange, enchanting tricks—the cult-chorus of nymphish vocals backing her claims on “Kisses Like Mine,” the cooing purrs of “Your Green Jacket” (“I like you cuz it looks to me like you were caught between/ two or three worlds,” she sighs on that track—and really, how else could one deliver a free associated daydream like that?).

Elsewhere, however, her voice and, really, things in general start to feel strained. On “Take Me to Church,” for instance, her pipes are pushed to their limit rattling off the celebratory laundry list (yes, really) of all the girls she doesn’t want to be anymore and veers into grating when she gets to the list of types of songs she wants to sing. Part of the issue is the overly literal songwriting Sinead has periodically employed: The words she wants sometimes take precedence over meter, crammed into spaces they don’t quite fit. That technique can be charming, like a yarn spun in a pub or a misty-eyed rumination (see the pensive “Streetcars”). But more often it can feel like rambling: “I saw darkness where I should’ve seen light and it wasn’t the beautiful darkness of night/ But the other kind that would cause a fright,” she sings on “Where Have You Been?” Whaaa?

Like her kinda feminist/kinda mean (frenemist?) open-letter-writing-turned-face-slapping or even her picture-ripping antics, these are the kinds of stylistic moves that can make Sinead difficult to take at times. She’s an artist you either love or hate —sometimes within the same song. Her extreme choices can fall extremely flat when she tries too hard to force them to be what she wants (or, to put it in Sinead’s own terms, when she winds up coming off as bossy instead of as a confident, charismatic boss). But when they pay off, it’s all worth it. Take the epic, soul-grabbing “Harbour”: It begins as a dark, brooding lullaby, self-assured vocals hinting at snarls as the track builds and builds to a full-on thrash at around 2:30. That’s pop extremism at its most fascinating and Sinead at her most maturely self-actualized. She’s never made herself easy to love—and that’s part of her appeal.