The Lion and The Cobra (Ensign ’87) Rating: A-
Although she was only a teenager when she wrote these songs, Sinead O’Connor knew exactly what she wanted from the start, at least musically. What is immediately apparent is that O’Connor has a stunning voice, alternately dispensing with a commanding edginess and an ethereal vulnerability, but what’s also impressive here is her musical range. Songs such as “Mandinka” (my favorite and easily the album’s catchiest song, thus it was an obvious choice for the album's first single) and “I Want Your (Hands On Me)” have a propulsive rock thrust that she would rarely revisit, while “Just Call Me Joe” has a noisy yet relaxed groove reminiscent of Crazy Horse. Elsewhere, "Jackie," “Just Like U Said It Would Be” and “I Want Your (Hands On Me)” are sexually charged showcases, with the two former songs exhibiting an almost overwhelming intensity while the latter demonstrates a playfulness not normally attributed to this serious artist. “Drink Before The War” is a slow building ballad more in line with said reputation, while Sinead’s vocals sound positively possessed on “Troy,” a vocal tour-de-force that touches upon the album's recurring theme of bitter betrayal (religious rites of passage is another primary lyrical preoccupation). “Jerusalem” gets a little bit funky and is a prime example of the prominence of percussion and synthesizers (along with lush string orchestrations and ethnic rhythms) in her music; it also has one of the album's most memorable choruses. On the downside, O’Connor’s voice is shrill at times and her pretensions can get the best of her, such as on “Never Get Old,” an artsy ambient piece with guest vocals from Enya. However, this audacious debut album was a highly impressive introduction to a uniquely vulnerable and passionate new voice, as a young and hungry O’Connor lets loose with a wild abandon we haven’t seen enough of since.
I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got (Ensign ‘90) Rating: B+
Although The Lion and The Cobra was a surprising success, this is the album that made everybody’s favorite Pope basher a superstar, largely because of her awesome performance on Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2U.” One of the decade’s finest hit singles featured her heart wrenching vocal performance and was helped by MTV’s constant airing of its unforgettable video, which prominently showcased O’Connor’s bald head and tear stained delivery. Though “Nothing Compares 2U" is clearly the album’s high point, this album offers much more that just that one song. For one thing, it's far more lyrically polished than the artier The Lion and The Cobra, which often used metaphor and mythmaking in place of a more direct intimacy. On the downside, Sinead's vocals are much more restrained, playing away from her primary strength (that booming voice), and a few ultra spare ballads too many makes the album veer towards the boring side at times. Still, the slowly unfolding, lushly orchestrated “I Feel So Different” gets the album off to a fine start, and “I am Stretched On Your Grave” impressively fuses together a sampled James Brown beat, a Phillip King-penned melody, and lyrics from a Frank O'Connor poem before The Waterboys' Steve Wickham's strange fiddle brings the song to a cool close. “Three Babies” has a spare new age sound along with O’Connor’s hushed yet still stunning voice, while the album really hits its stride on the extended pop groove of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” which is Sinead at her most rocking and catchy. “Black Boys On Mopeds” is a strikingly spare folk song that uses a real life tragedy (the death of Nicholas Bramble, who crashed his motorcycle fleeing cops who never should have been pursuing him in the first place) to denounce the hypocrisy of Margaret Thatcher's U.K. leadership, while "Jump In The River" is another rock oriented track that's again all about its groove, though its melody isn't particularly memorable. By contrast, the scathingly accusatory “You Cause As Much Sorrow” is (like many of these relatively simple and straightforward melodies) largely unadorned, and the title track, which ends the album on a positive note of inner strength, sees her going it alone a capella. What ties these songs together is O’Connor’s lovely, ultra-intense Irish voice and her highly personal lyrics; songs like the divorce pending “The Last Day Of Our Acquaintance” read like diary entries, while O’Connor’s recent motherhood is another recurring theme. Again, it should be noted that some of the ultra spare arrangements, most of which are grouped together towards the end of the album, can be a bit boring, but at its best these depressing songs are deeply moving. Though O’Connor recalls Kate Bush at times and has clearly influenced the (equally serious) Cranberries (Celtic/Irish folk and Van Morrison are other obvious influences), her emotional outpouring here remains a highly individualistic artistic statement. That said, musically I feel that this musically safer album is less impressive and exciting than The Lion and The Cobra, though most critics seem to disagree with that statement. Alas, almost everyone would agree that Sinead simply couldn’t handle success, becoming her own worst enemy with a series of PR gaffes that all but destroyed her popularity and momentum. Musically, her all too infrequent subsequent albums have also too often failed to live up to the potential of her first two albums.