I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got Sinéad O’Connor

The recent death of Sinéad O’Connor, aged just 56, has attracted headlines, in some cases for the wrong reasons. O’Connor’s music was packed with emotion and vulnerability, and she rarely shied away from tackling topics of emotive depth in her music or her media engagement. Through her songs, she spoke to many people at key junctures in their lives, when they turned to music for soothing, catharsis, and understanding. Her death, after a life of struggle much of which played out in a public arena, has therefore touched many people in a way like few others. As a means of celebration, we look back at Sinéad O’Connor’s greatest work, her second album ‘I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got’.

Released in March 1990, Sinéad O’Connor was joined by partner John Reynolds on drums, Andy Rourke of The Smiths on bass, and Marco Pirroni of Adam and the Ants and Siouxsie and the Banshees on guitar, Sinéad O’Connor wrote and produced the majority of the album personally. Leaning on Folk but drawing influence from disparate genres, the album is centred on O’Connor’s lyrics and vocals throughout.

Opening with a reading of ‘The Serenity Prayer’ by Reinhold Niebuhr, ‘Feel so Different’ features delicately layered strings on top of which O’Connor’s vocals slowly build in strength. When she breaks into a falsetto just short of halfway through the impact is immediately hair-raising. As strings chug and tantalise, O’Connor’s vocals bristle with anticipation as she builds to each rendition of her soaring chorus; catharsis brief with each before the next verse comes in. In stark contrast, the second track ‘I Am Stretched on Your Grave’ opens with a breakbeat sampled from James Brown’s ‘Funky Drummer’ while O’Connor draws out a Folky take on a 17th-century Irish poem translated into English. The result is a cut more in keeping with the nascent Trip Hop scene than the balladry of the previous track. While O’Connor is credited as the album’s primary producer, SoulIISoul and Massive Attack producer, Nellee Hooper, appears later on ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’. It’s clear she had her ear to the earliest iterations of what would become Trip Hop.

Next up, ‘Three Babies’ features a delicate string arrangement while O’Connor’s vocal swells quickly evolve from whispered fragility to emotive yelp and back. Much has been written and discussed about O’Connor’s open dialogue on loss and faith, with her evolving position on the latter being a noted subject throughout her life and career. The lyrics to ‘Three Babies’ are opaque, hinting at the loss of a child, though also easily conflated with the notion of the Holy Trinity. What is transparent is the emotive depth with which O’Connor addresses her subject matter, where every song comes from a place deep within, as if desperate for release.

‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ was released as a single and is the rockiest track here. A moderately upbeat track, it finds O’Connor kicking back at the pressures around her and celebrating her independence in motherhood. Bolder still is the lyrics of ‘Black Boys on Mopeds’ which directly addresses societal fractures, the carelessness of the Thatcher Government, racist police violence and crippling poverty. Set against a looping acoustic guitar line, it's a classic singer-songwriter protest song that fully shows O’Connor’s writing was as strong as both her beliefs and her vocals.

Of course, many of these tracks have not attracted the attention they so readily deserve. Filled with emotion, beauty, anger and despair, and touching on a range of musical genres both long-established and brilliantly new, the album was critically lauded upon its release. Named as one of the best albums of the year by several music publications, it reached number one in the album charts in the UK, Ireland and the US. Yet, in the ensuing thirty years the album has lost attention while its lead single has grown to define, and often overshadow, its creator.

‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ was written in the mid-1980s by Prince. While he recorded a demo version with his band, unreleased until after his death, he ultimately provided the track to his side-project band, The Family, who released it in 1985 as an album track. Generally overlooked and forgotten, Sinéad O’Connor picked up the track and reworked it with producer Nellee Hooper. Built on a foundation of synthesised strings and a stripped-back percussive beat, the track is a showcase for the depth and range of O’Connor’s vocals. Delivered from the beginning with a stronger delivery than many of the tracks on ‘I Do Not Want …’, the echoes of Prince are there in the bounce of the delivery on the chorus build. While the accompanying video featuring a close-up of O’Connor’s raw emotion would be viewed millions of times over the next decades, her vocal delivery is instead balanced and precise yet still laden with emotion. Often read as a breakup song, O’Connor regularly stated that she interpreted it in terms of the death of her mother, whom she had a troubled relationship with. Bluntly open and honest, unguarded with her emotions, and pained when she was misunderstood, even her biggest hit was open to interpretation while at the same time succeeding in speaking to global audiences.

A master of capturing universal emotions and putting them in the spotlight, while distilling personal experience down to nuance and detail, Sinéad O’Connor resonated the most precious of qualities in music; authenticity. While many artists spend careers cultivating it, O’Connor at times wore it as a yoke, weighed down by the balancing act of translating her personal experience into the emotional foil for her audiences. As an artist, she had a supreme talent for crafting and exploiting contrast quite unlike any others. While her contemporaries Nirvana were teasing loud-quiet-loud dynamics in Rock, as pioneered by Pixies, O’Connor was leveraging the dynamism of vocal range from fragile whispers to anguished exclamations while also contrasting love with loss, intimate personal detail with universal feelings, and beauty with pain. From track to track, she skipped through influences and moods, self-penned songs to covers, future mega-hits to tracks we should all take time to listen to more often. For those she touched with her music when Sinéad O’Connor sang for herself, she also sang for them.

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