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[whitespace] Sinead O'Conner Daddy, I'm Fine: Sinéad O'Connor has cooled down and grown up without letting her inspiration go slack.

Made in the Sinéad

With her new album, 'Faith and Courage,' Sinéad O'Connor proves she's kept her muse alive after years of controversy

By Michelle Goldberg

THERE'S A POPULAR CONCEIT that Americans have become unshockable. Numbed by talk-show slugfests that play like John Waters parodies, endlessly recapitulated tales of presidential fellatio, chart-topping rap acts that wallow in fantasies of gang rape and indiscriminate murder, few can work up the energy for outrage anymore, righteous or otherwise.

But just a few years ago, the press whipped itself into a rabid frenzy of outraged piety over a petite rock singer with a shaved head. You remember Sinéad O'Connor, right? The girl of whom Frank Sinatra said, "I'd kick her ass if she were a guy"? The one whom Madonna--Madonna!--attacked for blasphemy toward the Catholic Church? The one whose anti-establishment antics got her booed off the stage at a Bob Dylan tribute?

To think about O'Connor's career is to be reminded of a massive double standard that armies of Lilith Fairies haven't succeeded in denting. O'Connor was more execrated than the monstrous Eminem, Marilyn Manson and Black Sabbath put together.

And why? Partly, of course, it was her hair or lack thereof. O'Connor came on the scene before girl power, before alternative culture had become the lingua franca of corporate America. In other words, when a crazy-looking woman still scared people. The fact that she remained ravishing even as she rejected the conventions of femininity just seemed to incense people further.

But there was more to it than that. Unlike today's slick transgression peddlers, O'Connor didn't accompany her actions--her refusal to let the national anthem be played before a concert, her desecration of a picture of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live--with an ironic wink. They were messy, fumbling, passionate, uncool.

Recall that Madonna's Sex book, released the same year as O'Connor's pope photo stunt, was greeted with nothing but yawns. The difference was simple: Madonna never dropped her show-biz veneer, never threatened to go out of control. If there's one thing that our supposedly all-tolerant culture has never been able to stand, it's a really unruly woman, which is why musicians from Yoko Ono to Courtney Love have been scorned even as far more outré artists are embraced.

Thus O'Connor was more or less driven off the popular stage. After her 1994 album, Universal Mother, she practically vanished, except for occasional stories of nervous breakdowns, suicide attempts and custody battles.

THAT'S WHY THE NAME of her glorious new record, Faith and Courage (WEA/Atlantic), is particularly apt--it must have taken massive amounts of both for O'Connor to keep her muse alive all this time. And she has. Faith and Courage is simply stunning, emotionally grandiose and sonically innovative.

Featuring such collaborators as ex-Fugee Wyclef Jean, ambient guru Brian Eno and ex-PIL bassist Jah Wobble, Faith and Courage delivers a potent reminder of O'Connor's pioneering genre versatility. After all, she fused brooding dub bass and soulful rock vocals on the 1987 track "I Want Your (Hands on Me)," long before anyone coined the term trip-hop.

There are ballads that rip your heart out on Faith and Courage, as well as sprawling arena-rock, spacey ambient lullabies, laid-back Caribbean melodies, hyper power punk and touches of traditional Irish music. The delicate "Jealous" and raucous "Daddy, I'm Fine" rank among the best music she's ever made. Despite a bit of New Age sanctimoniousness, Faith and Courage is as triumphant as its title.

The album begins with "The Healing Room," and while the touchy-feely title may make you squirm, the song itself is absolutely lovely. O'Connor sings of finding peace with clarion richness over an aquatic soundscape woven through with her own whispers. The song coasts on waves of soft, shimmery beats, warmed by a child's giggle that bubbles up from time to time.

Soothing and grounded, the track sets the tone for the journey to follow. Although Faith and Courage is wildly diverse, it's also thematically unified. It's a record about strength, self-acceptance and coming to terms with a tumultuous past.

O'Connor's startling, fabulous debut, The Lion and the Cobra, was a fierce Amazonian shriek of a record, but while the anarchic element of her personality electrified the music, it seems to have taken its toll on her life. Amazingly, on Faith and Courage, O'Connor seems to have cooled down and grown up without letting her inspiration go slack. If anything, her relative maturity has allowed her to access some of the more playful parts of her personality once eclipsed by youthful stridency.

THIS NEW PERSPECTIVE, mellowed but ebullient, shows on "Daddy, I'm Fine," a nostalgic song about her early ambitions. Instead of a verse-chorus-verse structure, the song shifts between three modes: a brooding, reggae- inflected groove, a yearning, more intense rock and a thrash catharsis.

In the song, one can hear the frustration of a girl in Dublin, the giddiness and concentrated hope of a young woman on the verge and the sweet, hysterical release of early success. Best of all, O'Connor finally seems to be having fun. She sings, "And I feel real cool, and I feel good/Got my hair shaved off and my black thigh boots/I stand up tall with my pride upright/And feel real hot when my makeup's nice/ I get sexy underneath them lights/Like I wanna fuck every man in sight."

Sure, she's been amorous before, but here the eroticism seems more about frolicking pleasure than the naked need of "I Want Your (Hands on Me)." The end of the song provides a litany of the things O'Connor loves about her life. "I am happy in my prime," she sings, assuring her father that she's fine and, in a poignant, generous last line, that she loves him--a lyric that's all the more powerful because of how often she's talked about her miserable childhood.

This new soulful solidity is evident even on the tortured broken-hearted ballad "Jealous." O'Connor's best previous love songs--the Prince-penned "Nothing Compares 2 U" and the wrenching "The Last Day of Our Acquaintance"--each had the aura of a woman forsaken. "Jealous" is as moving as either of them, but the sentiment is slightly different. The song tells of a woman unwilling to be beholden to a cruel, controlling man with whom she's desperately in love. The line that reverberates throughout is "I don't deserve to be lonely just 'cuz you say I do."

If anyone in pop has a right to rage, it's O'Connor. She was excoriated by a culture unready for her, one with an entirely different standard for angry young women than for angry young men. But she's moved beyond that, and her art is the better for it.

The only time Faith and Courage really flags is on "The Lamb's Book of Life," in which O'Connor offers a kind of mea culpa for her past, singing: "I know that I have done many things/To give you reason not to listen to me/Especially as I have been so angry/But if you knew me, maybe you would understand me." With her rich oeuvre and fantastic new record, O'Connor has nothing to apologize for.

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From the June 22-28, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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