Sinead O'Connor,
Sean-Nos Nua
(Vanguard, 2002)

Many times I have wished that Sinead O'Connor, the controversial bad girl of Irish alternative rock, would more fully explore her traditional roots, something she had previously done in dribs and drabs in various collaborations over the years. Now the Powers That Be have granted my request and I realize I should have worded it more carefully.

Sinead has always been known as a brash singer. A bold experimenter. A fearless flouter of convention. A hairstylist's nightmare. Who would have dreamed that behind it all waited a shy and retiring girl? Sinead has in the past shown great mastery of her primal emotions, particularly love, anger and despair. But on her new recording, she's mostly just sad. Of primal Sinead there is no sign.

Sean-Nos Nua is an excellent platform for Sinead's beautiful voice and, yes, it exposes another side of her talents. It is, she has said in interviews, the album she has always wanted to make. But where's the edge we've come to expect from the woman who tore up the Pope, switched gender orientation more than once, became a priest and shaved her head back to the early '90s because someone thought she looked like Enya?

The album title translates to "old style, new way," and it points to the old songs she learned from her father reimagined for a new generation. But when I listen to Sean-Nos Nua, I don't hear a lot of innovation beyond some subtle electronics and a bit of a beat every now and again. These aren't angry songs about Irish freedom and justice, nor are they jolly songs from the back of a Guinness-soaked pub. These are sad songs, gentle songs, tears on the pillow and salt in your beer. The best word to describe it is weepy.

I suppose it's nice, in a way, to strip Sinead of her ubiquitous controversy and let us simply hear her music for a change. But this isn't the music we wanted. From a crying version of "Peggy Gordon" on track 1, the CD proceeds through sobbing renditions of "Her Mantle So Green," "Lord Franklin," "The Singing Bird" and "The Moorlough Shore." She provides the most depressing takes on "Molly Malone" and "Paddy's Lament" I've ever heard -- and that's saying something.

The singer recovers her composure on rare occasion. She's not crying on "Oro Se Do Bheatha 'Bhaile," but neither does she summon the rage usually associated with this song; instead, she sounds mildly annoyed. The music on "The Parting Glass" sounds almost perky, but Sinead still sings it with tear-stained cheeks. There are glimmers of pride and bravado in "Baidin Fheilimi," but they're mired in sorrow.

Near the end of the album, Sinead teases us with hints of what this album could have been. "My Lagan Love" is sung powerfully, with subtly modern touches in the arrangement that set it apart from other versions and -- finally -- tongues of fire in her voice. Irish legend Christy Moore joins her for "Lord Baker," a somber track clocking in at just under 12 minutes. The arrangement is just on this side of being an a cappella duet, blending two great voices with only minimal instrumentation supporting the song. For the final track, "I'll Tell Me Ma," at last adds a touch of frolic to the album.

Sinead, in her introduction to the album, says the songs are all "magical prayers" and, therefore, aren't really sad at all. She must use a much more liberal dictionary than I. To paraphrase the title of one of Sinead's early rock albums, I do want what I have not got. I hope someday, when she finds herself in better spirits, she tackles Irish traditional music again -- remembering this time that the Irish don't just cry in their pints and weep on the peat bogs. There is great joy in Ireland, and music is its greatest expression -- but not on this album.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 1 March 2003

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