Second albums — especially much-anticipated second albums — are a well-known jinx. And so after her debut two years ago with the sometimes lush, sometimes hard- rocking The Lion and the Cobra, Sinead O’Connor might have given us almost anything. A pop album, a rock album, an impossibly mannered album — anything.
Instead, it’s as if she tore her skin off. ”God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,” she mutters at the beginning over sober strings, intoning a prayer that serves — however O’Connor might have found it — as a credo for people in 12-step programs. But she sounds tense. Maybe God hasn’t granted her that serenity yet.
Strings keep cropping up on the album, as they did on The Lion and the Cobra. There they sounded passionate; here they seem spiritual, like a musical halo or a continuing prayer.
But then there are songs without strings, songs that blow on a rock & roll wind, even a denunciation of British racism called ”Black Boys on Mopeds,” which balances mainly on a single acoustic guitar. And of course there’s O’Connor’s voice, which, despite widespread amazement at its range and strength, is in no way dependable. It pales and cracks. And through those cracks pours truth, as if O’Connor were strong enough not to be afraid to let herself break.
She sings several songs about how to carry on after losing love, among them the album’s first single, a song written by Prince called ”Nothing Compares 2 U.” But mostly she sings about her quest for serenity. That quest gives the album a large-scale arc, in which the prayer at the start is answered at the end by the title song, ”I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.” This O’Connor sings unaccompanied, letting her philosophy, like her voice, stand before us naked. It’s not a polished or nuanced philosophy (O’Connor is only 23), but she does sound as though she earned it, not just picked it up from an inspirational book.
Astounding things happen. There’s one song luridly titled ”I Am Stretched Out on Your Grave.” It’s not the horror-film scenario you might expect; instead, it’s almost like an ancient romance, in which a woman won’t be separated from her lover even by death. O’Connor intones it over a stark but absolutely unexpected accompaniment: a bare-bones dance track, clattered out on what sounds like a drum machine. The result is like a marriage of the 14th and 21st centuries, ancient myth played out against a backdrop of urban decay.
In this way, O’Connor transforms pop-music styles, never doing quite what you’d expect. But will she wander outside pop and fall into clichés in styles she doesn’t know as well? There’s a distantly secondhand smell, for example, in the quasi-classical way she uses strings. But let her confront that danger later. This album continues a journey into unexplored country, a journey whose end I wouldn’t dare try to predict. A