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Classic Reviews: Sinead O’Connor, Universal Mother

sinead o connor universal mother

This article originally appeared in the October 1994 issue of SPIN.

Sinead O’Connor has a reputation. No other rock star of her generation has made more of a public spectacle of herself. She’s worn her heart, her ideals, and her memories on her sleeve: she told the press about the violent abuse she endured as a child at the hands of her mother, her problems with men, her hatred of the church, and most recently, her failed suicide attempt. Eventually her fervor for honesty went beyond words, inflating into massive diatribes that garnered public loathing (Frank Sinatra once threatened to whip her ass for dissing the national anthem). In 1992, she announced that she was leaving the music business, explaining in a bizarre public letter “I am an abused child. The only reason I ever opened my mouth to sing was so that I could tell my story and have it heard.”

Her tendency for self-aggrandizement eventually resulted in what was supposed to be her last record ever: Am I Not Your Girl?, featuring her cover of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” a melodramatic, sweeping “Je Ne Regrette Rien”-style apologia (“It won’t be easy, you’ll think it’s strange / When I try to explain how I feel / That I still need your love after all I’ve done”). O’Connor had a calling. Obsessed with purity and truth, she pitched herself somewhere between Christ and the Virgin Mary, as an asexual visionary whose suffering was inextricably intertwined with the pain of Ireland and of the world.

Which is where Universal Mother picks up. There isn’t much howling rage here (remember the wild-eyed warrior circa The Lion and the Cobra, the primal screams in “Troy” we fell in love with in the first place?). Instead, Universal Mother is like the aftermath of a disastrous storm — a muted, water-soaked landscape full of dazed survivors surveying the wreckage.

O’Connor’s political perspective still frames everything, of course. A Germaine Greer monologue on destroying patriarchy’s “spiral of power” prefaces the record, and “Famine,” an earnest rap set against a jaunty De La Soul-ish groove, links O’Connor’s troubles with Ireland’s: “See we’re like a child that’s been battered / Has to drive itself out of its head because it’s frightened.” O’Connor and Ireland are both disconnected from their history. She patters comfortably as if talking to the mailman: “And if there ever is gonna be healing / There has to be remembering / And then grieving.”

Grief is the touchstone of Universal Mother. A living archive of abuse, O’Connor seems consumed, swollen with her memories, like she can’t live in her body until she gets rid of her ugly past. “Fire on Babylon” is a harrowing, almost apocalyptic opener, O’Connor’s voice stretched shrilly over a menacing bass as she bears witness to her own nightmares. Yet in the midst of this scorched war zone, the song momentarily ebbs into a dizzy, melodic oasis. There are tiny kernels of hope like this all over the place, epiphanies that give Universal Mother a luminous feel. Like “John I Love You,” a measured, upful waltz with its sweet, artless affection and encouraging refrain (“There’s life outside your mother’s garden”), or “Thank You for Hearing Me,” a post-suicide-attempt song that hums with lush gratitude for life’s little favors.

As might be expected from a record called Universal Mother, most of the songs are lilting folk numbers. Everything is stripped down — musically and lyrically — to bare bones, as if O’Connor’s trying to get past the confessional and self-referential to reach a common language of shared emotions. She revels in the simplicity of chants and repetition, recapturing intimations of a more innocent time. “My Darling Child” is literally a lullaby to her son, gentle endearments murmured over a delicate music-box tune. “A Perfect Indian” might be lifted from one of folk-rock goddess Sandy Denny’s albums. This gorgeously elegiac melody is permeated with fragile melancholic inflections and haunting snapshots of anomie: the picture of a young girl who “In her yellow dress / For a photograph, feigned happiness.”

Sometimes the intimacy of Universal Mother verges on heartbreak. Its version of Nirvana’s “All Apologies” is stunningly bleached and bloodless. As neurasthenic as Kurt Cobain’s vocal was, O’Connor’s is more so — her voice is practically translucent, utterly sapped of will and hope. “All in all is all we all are” becomes a true mantra, the peaceful dissolution of a person ready to relinquish her body to the winds. It’s chillingly beautiful, like so much of the album, but it’s impossible not to look for O’Connor’s pathology between the lines. She’s invited us to do just that by covering a song by Cobain, now the most famous suicide in rock history.

What’s fascinating about O’Connor is her perpetual adolescent confusion— her simultaneous pomposity and self-effacement, exhibitionism and shame. It’s a no-win situation: She makes a spectacle of herself, invites our approval and disgust, and we remain voyeurs, riveted by the image of a woman so far out on the edge. You can’t help thinking that she’d be wise to do what Cobain couldn’t — take a break from her public game of hide-and-seek, forget about saving the rest of the world’s souls, and save her own.