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POP MUSIC | CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Nothing Compares

If prodded, most music fans will admit to an inexplicable soft spot for one artist. Sinead O'Connor, here comes a confession.

July 01, 2007|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

EVERY serious music buff has a secret love. The unmanageable kind, as expressed in Doris Day's hit of that name: a passion that lives in the heart of you and grows impatient to be free but awaits those moments when the whole unfurling won't be too darn embarrassing.

Maybe you're a metalhead who listens to Diana Krall in your bedroom late at night, or the only person in your group who's still really into the Black Crowes. Or the object of your affection could be completely acceptable, with only the intensity of feeling getting out of hand. Either way, this kind of devotion to an artist, a musical work or a style is unjustifiable, emotional and fundamentally private.

It's not the same as a guilty pleasure; that term has been neutered by the prevailing idea that taste is just a matter of perspective and hierarchies are for old men who can't get over Bob Dylan. Guilty pleasures today don't involve much guilt; either they're camp, or they argue for certain ideas -- that the 1970s were underappreciated, for example, or that teen idols can make serious musical statements. Secret loves, on the other hand, argue for nothing. They just persist, and in their resilience, reveal the undefended, perhaps indefensible corners of the heart.

My secret love is Sinead O'Connor. It's an open secret; when asked about my favorite artists, I might mention her, but I won't elaborate or offer a rationale. If one of her efforts pops up on my year-end best-of list, I like to think others would find it exceptional too. But the truth is that I love everything O'Connor does, even her missteps.

In the 1980s, O'Connor stood for defiant post-punk femininity, her shaved head and glorious wail signaling a new way to feel freedom. But after her one major international hit, her 1990 version of the Prince-penned "Nothing Compares 2 U," O'Connor became a difficult case. She ripped up a photo of Pope John Paul II during a 1992 "Saturday Night Live" appearance, making herself an outcast among mainstream entertainers without making clear the reason for her heresy. (She was protesting the church's then-surfacing sexual child-abuse scandals.) From there the controversies multiplied, and it became awkward to be her fan.

She bore four children by four fathers. She was ordained as a priest within a Catholic splinter group but refused to share details of her vocation. Interviews became an occasion for her to say something outrageous -- that she was a lesbian or that she would retire. Now she's releasing "Theology," her second album since she announced she would record only "inspirational" music -- the first was a collection of Rastafarian-influenced reggae songs.

This double-disc set is likely to gain her few new listeners. Its lyrics come straight from the Old Testament, thick with images of vineyards and voices raised to a vengeful God. The music, half Irish traditional and half gentle rock, contains few hooks or concessions to fashion. Most songs appear twice, as if O'Connor can't stand the thought of her Word not being fully absorbed. None of it's accessible, unless you've got your King James Version on the bed stand. It's not the soft-pedaled, feel-good stuff that fills most mega-churches, either; though O'Connor has expressed hope that religious people will find her music, she's not conceding to contemporary Christian trends either.

"Theology" is exactly the kind of release I treasure from O'Connor, though I'd never try to push it on a skeptic. That would entail contextualization, and there's nothing in this music that expresses the desire for that.

This is pretty much how I've felt about O'Connor's music for 15 years. The beauty I hear in it has nothing to do with what's hip, or great, or even relevant in the big pop world. What I hear is a mind resolute on understanding things I'd like to understand too.

Worry-free music

O'CONNOR doesn't worry about whether contemplating subjects like spiritual yearning or political oppression in clear and uncompromising language makes her seem like a blowhard. She just makes the music she makes, from her own questions. As a critic -- someone who spends way too much time second-guessing artists' motivations -- I love that O'Connor's are so forthright, unguarded and singular. I like that she doesn't seem to want someone like me to make excuses for her.

I vividly remember the first time I heard O'Connor singing. It was 1987. I was in bed, waking up alone in the ramshackle Victorian flat I shared with several like-minded weirdos in San Francisco. The morning show on KUSF, my neighborhood college radio station, buzzed from the clock radio nearby.

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