She’s always been like this: unconventional, abrasive, outspoken, hard-headed, ever so slightly obtuse... It seems Sinéad O’Connor was never quite geared for pop stardom. In an industry where most value job security over artistic freedom, the young Sister Bernadette seemed determined to dismantle her career before it had even started.
For example, Ensign originally planned to market O’Connor as a sex symbol; in response, the insolent girl experimented with a number of hairstyles before finally shaving it all off, a decision she justified with the infamous words, ”hair's a fashion statement and I don't want to make one.”
Later, believing that the label and producer Mick Glossop (Van Morrison, Public Image Ltd., The Skids) had pushed her music into a traditional Irish shell, she had four months of recordings scrapped on the eve of the scheduled mixing, branding Glossop "a fu
cking old hippy" on his way out. Finally, seven months pregnant (by the drummer, naturally) and resisting pressure to abort, she took the task of producing the album upon herself- a task and a half for any twenty year-old, let alone a soon-to-be single mother with barely any previous recording experience to her name.
Of course, assuming her “fashion statement” line was sincere, it was silly of her to assume such a move wouldn’t prejudice the way her music was perceived; her hairlessness brought the inevitable accusations of lesbianism (which she later confirmed, shortly before getting married for the second time, to a man.) Even that most esteemed (and always credible) of publications Rolling Stone
got in on the act, declaring, “Sinéad O'Connor's first album comes on like a banshee wail across the bogs”
as if it actually meant something. That assessment does, however, touch upon the most striking aspect of O’Connor’s early music- that
voice. Untrained but beautifully controlled, emotionally and physically powerful and defying convention, it’s as hard now as then to pinpoint exactly where it comes from: her vocal strength undoubtedly stems from her background in jazz, while her heavily ornamented, arythmical and occasionally off-key solo spots have precedent in the Irish sean nós style. But in pop terms her closest (still distant) reference point is Kate Bush, one of few other pop artists willing to force change in the relationship between pitch, key and acceptability.
The music, in comparison, is simple to translate. There are clear elements of contemporary post punk pop music, art rock and glam rock, but the most explicitly referenced artist is Prince. The majority of the tracks have strong pop backing but are at once progressive, making heavy use of electronic beats (courtesy of John Reynolds) and synthesisers (Mike Clowes) in a style that recalls the second half of the tiny man’s 1999
and subsequent recordings. ‘I Want Your Hands (On Me),’ one of two “standard” pop songs on the record, is the type of funk-pop song only a white person could produce: sexually-charged, sweaty and… a little bit uncomfortable- it’s the sonic precursor to ‘Batdance.’ Yet, while The Lion And The Cobra
features occasionally stunning instrumentals, it’s Sinéad’s voice, and particularly the way she arranges the tracks around that voice, that makes it such an outstanding record.
Prince may still be considered the master of progressive pop music, however I’d be inclined to argue there’s one major technique he was never fully able to avail of- dynamics. Kicking mic-stands might induce the odd deafening explosion, but leave it to Sinéad to go ahead burst eardrums the old-fashioned way- at points, even the best recording equipment 1986 had to offer couldn’t cope with the power and intensity of her performance. O’Connor is still one of the few rock musicians of recent times to truly understand how powerful the volume dynamic can be, provided it’s intelligently done. It compliments perfectly her lyrical themes, which revolve around confused and isolated characters whose emotions are as fragile and as fleeting as her own, such as the character of ‘Jackie,’ a ghost that wanders the shore long after her death waiting in vain for her seafaring lover to return, as she had in life. ‘Troy’ is an adventure in itself, contrasting Dublin’s urban setting with historical Troy, which she uses as a metaphor for the most callous of betrayals, crying ”the flames burned away, but you’re still spitting fire.”
Certainly, she’s the only one capable of exploiting the quiet-loud dynamic with the power of her voice alone and not a distortion pedal or laboured string section. Sinéad here proves herself capable of moving tirelessly between alto and soprano registers, soft and breathy one minute, euphorically belting the next. This is nowhere more aptly demonstrated than one the six-minute surprise single ‘Troy,’ which sees the singer transform a barely audible whine to a series of mock crescendos half-way through, before finally giving away to abandon in the closing phrases. ‘Troy’ is merely the most thrilling example: The Lion And The Cobra
as a whole plays like a Hitchcock soundtrack, or even an entire film festival. Undoubtedly, suspenseful film music makes its mark on the album somehow, whether as a direct or borrowed influence. On ‘Never Get Old,’ Sinéad uses her voice as a makeshift violin, mimicking the classic “screeching strings,” and elsewhere is masterful at manipulating the listener’s emotions merely by adjusting the volume of her voice.
While far from technically perfect, Sinead was and is an incredibly gifted singer; later albums would see her develop immensely as a more “straight-forward” vocalist, however The Lion And The Cobra
is a stunning example of pure expression, a singer with the exceptional ability to maximise her own capabilities. For instance, ‘Drink Before The War’ sees Sinéad hold a single note for extended periods without a variation in pitch (barring the odd glitch), yet the very fact she’s less than perfectly trained (in essence, human) makes it sound pained, almost primal. Conversely, on ‘Jerusalem’ she fashions an entire chorus from one word, uttering the four syllables in a continuous and melodic burst showing that she need not be limited, melodically, by a single word or phrase.
The Lion And The Cobra
is an intense experience, an album that’s almost impossible to listen to casually- if it doesn’t draw the listener in, it’s likely to lose their interest completely. There is some respite to be had, however: ‘Mandinka’ was a hit upon its release and, while overshadowed by ‘Nothing Compares 2 U,’ remains a classic. In contrast to most of the tracks on the album, it’s extremely simple, based upon the classic major I-V-IV pop progression- however it’s also very cleverly produced. For a start, the main hook is the chord progression itself: the vocal melody wanders but the chorus is never the central element; the bass is cleverly separated from the drums and doubles the guitar track, bringing in a quasi-funky element. Most importantly, it exposes the pop undercurrent that runs through her work without emphasising the erratic nature of her vocal performance.
‘I Want Your (Hands On Me)’ and ‘Just Call Me Joe’ are the other two anomalies: both featuring Sinéad’s most relaxed vocal performances, and the latter the first indication of what was to follow on 1990’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got
, although it was in fact written by guitarist Kevin Mooney under the pseudonym “Black Moon E.” That second album is generally regarded by critics as her finest effort (unusual, as critics tend to prefer the rawer, “before she was famous”-type albums), but the majority of Sinéad fans regard The Lion And The Cobra
as her most distinguished product- emotionally honest; perfect by merely being imperfect.
It’s no coincidence that of the two major female rock artists to emerge since the early 90s: Shania Twain is a country singer, and Alanis Morissette is profoundly influenced by Sinéad O’Connor (leading to the conclusion that two-thirds of all women are Canadian and the other third are bald?) The initial impact she made both as a musician and a female musician have never really been improved upon, however her influence can be heard across the board in contemporary Irish music (ask Damien Rice), and The Lion And The Cobra
will, I’m sure, one day be held in the esteem that it commands.