So much of the coverage around Sinéad O’Connor ends up focusing on the extreme turbulence that seems to characterise her life that it almost feels something of a luxury to be able to focus just on her music. Her latest album How About I Be Me (And You Be You)? was released last year and suggested a real return to quality form, following a series of records that had explored various niches like reggae, devotional anthems and Irish songs without ever really hitting superlative heights of her earlier work. So when her Crazy Baldhead Tour was announced, I was most excited to get tickets for the Barbican date.
“To whom exactly are we giving hope
When we stand behind the velvet rope
Or get our pictures taken with the pope”
And it was almost everything I wanted a Sinéad gig to be. I’ve long been a fan but I’d never caught a full gig of hers before, having to make do with an appearance at an extraordinary night as part of Patti Smith’s year at the Meltdown festival. From the nervy beginnings that reminded us of how human she is to the shonky guitar playing throughout, this was never a gig about perfect polished performance. But rather it captured much of the essence of what makes her so thrillingly unique as an artist even now, 26 years after her astonishing debut The Lion and the Cobra.
“Sometimes life does things to you
that will hurt you and confuse you”
Perhaps the songwriting doesn’t burn with quite the same intense fury as before but what this latest collection of songs does do is build in a layer of reflective, almost ruminative, depth to her work – the voice of bruised experience but also of wry optimism too which makes it a deeply affecting album. And that profundity translated into the Barbican’s hall most effectively, with the punchy sound of her seven-piece band underscoring that inimitable, elemental voice.
“I wanted to change the world
But I could not even change my underwear”
From the quirky humour and strident edges of John Grant’s ‘Queen of Denmark’ to the incandescent righteous fury of ‘Take Off Your Shoes’ to the hauntingly plaintive ‘Reason With Me’, the intensity in the hall was really something to behold. A (mostly) respectfully hushed audience (although there’s always someone who has to make a big deal of showing they recognise every song…) sat in rapt wonder, making this an excellent choice to venue – there’s nothing more annoying than being stood around and behind people who decide to chat all the way through a gig – Antony and the Johnsons at Shepherds Bush was ruined for me that way. But she’s also enjoying cutting loose and so the free and easy vibe of ‘4th & Vine’ and the loveliness of ‘The Wolf Is Getting Married’ offered a useful emotional counterpoint.
“Do you think that you can take the answer?
As it turns, you have to wear life well”
Her back catalogue was well represented too. Jackie sparkled afresh as if brand new, ‘Fire on Babylon’ gained a surprisingly funky edge but it was with the accapellas that the songs really soared. An excoriating ‘I Am Stretched On Your Grave’ was simply breath-taking, a clarion-clear vocal heightening the already intense mood and the increasing harmonies of ‘In This Heart’ as more and more of the band joined in were simply gorgeous to listen to.
“It’s time we were together
For I smell of the earth
And am worn by the weather”
It’s a little bit of a shame that after so tightly run a set with artist and band working together so well, the encore seemed to lose much of that essential energy. Returning to the stage solo, she delivered the accusatory venom of ‘V.I.P.’ with extraordinary unadorned precision but the ensuing numbers on her guitar felt a little unfocused and indulgent. But this was a small bugbear on what was largely a hugely successful evening. I hope I don’t have to wait too long to see her again.