Sinéad O’Connor review – still nothing compares

O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London
After a turbulent time out of the spotlight, and her recent conversion to Islam, the Irish singer retains the power to stun an audience into silence

Throughout her every transformation, be it musical or visual, Sinéad O’Connor has remained instantly recognisable – irreducibly herself. Wrapped in a black PVC mini-dress and sporting a bobbed wig on the cover of her last album, I’m Not Bossy, I’m The Boss (a long-ago 2014), the Irish singer was still identifiable as the shaven-headed young woman from the all-conquering Nothing Compares 2 U video, and as the pop star who tore up a picture of the pope on live US television in 1992.

A few days after her 53rd birthday, taking the stage on the only mainland UK date of her current tour, O’Connor is barefoot, clad in a black abaya with a subtle geometric check, and wearing a hijab – still unmistakable, despite a change in religion, two changes of name, some assertions of non-binary sexuality and a three-and-a-half-year process of regaining good mental health. Just as the Cassandra of Greek myth was doomed to tell the truth and not be believed, O’Connor’s 1992 declarations about abuse in the Catholic church are now a very public scandal.

She is undergoing an act of renewal. Last year, she released a demo of new music under the name Magda Arjuna Davitt, expressing a desire to rid herself of her “patriarchal slave name” and “parental curses”. Now she goes by the name Shuhada Sadaqat (Shuhada is an Arabic girl’s name; sadaqat refers to a voluntary sign of faith).

Even more striking than her shape-shifting constancy, perhaps, is the unwavering quality of her voice, which remains imbued with moral authority and the kind of tell-tale timbre that requires nanoseconds to recognise.

When O’Connor – she continues to use this name for work – opens her mouth tonight to sing Queen of Denmark, a John Grant song that she has made her own, her voice still goes from nought-to-righteous ire in one breath. “Why don’t you take it out on somebody else?” she hollers, to wild hoots of approval.

Throughout this often mesmerising gig, O’Connor is a picture of restraint – under-singing not because she has to, but because she is a master stylist. She still hits plenty of high notes, but she does it when it suits her. Also wonderfully unchanged is the way O’Connor emphatically yanks her chin to one side on a crescendo, as though the full blare of her voice might overpower the microphone.

This tour – which goes by the gnomic name 786 – began with rave reviews in Ireland; it is set to continue, in bursts, well into 2020 as O’Connor comes back into the world. Her timing has a little kismet about it. Uncompromising young women are no longer universally vilified, as O’Connor was in the 90s. For all the abuse Greta Thunberg receives, her message – and its unsmiling delivery – resonates widely.

Most of O’Connor’s compositions are love songs, but her political songs are now, once again, very relevant. Last summer, the US guitarist Sharon Van Etten revived one of O’Connor’s old tunes, Black Boys on Mopeds. O’Connor’s version goes down very well tonight. “These are dangerous days,” it goes (it’s set in the Thatcher era), and there are howls from the crowd, many of whom remember the last stretch of Tory hegemony first-hand.

Perhaps most germane to the present moment is O’Connor’s very open, public and ongoing conversation about her physical and mental health. In 2017, she told a US television talk show that a hysterectomy in 2015 plunged her into full menopause, and O’Connor cites the lack of hormone replacement therapy post-op as contributing to a suicide attempt.

Sinéad O'Connor at O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London
Sinéad O’Connor on stage in London: ‘Every song emphatically has something to say.’ Photograph: Gus Stewart/Redferns

That same year, the singer posted a distressed – and distressing – video from a New Jersey motel room. In the months that followed, she received in-patient therapy. She told the Irish broadcaster Dave Fanning last June that “if I hadn’t been in hospital for three and a half years… I wouldn’t be alive to sit here talking”. She described therapeutic work undertaken on the trauma she sustained in childhood (her mother was a violent alcoholic who died when O’Connor was 18) and the difficulty doctors had in arriving at her precise diagnosis.

Anyone following O’Connor’s Twitter account lately will know she recently gave up smoking, broke a lumbar vertebra and is now selling her motorbike as a result. Happily, she is now also “officially 99.999999% debt-free”. There is new management – two of her former bandmates – and a memoir with a US publisher set to come out sometime after the US election, written in the style of a blog. There is talk also of not one, but two new albums. One looks set to be cover versions; the other might be called No Mud No Lotus, after the Buddhist idea that something of value comes out of suffering. Or it might be called AKA, given the frequent name changes.

Although every song O’Connor serves up tonight emphatically has something to say, there are times when you do question the medium in which they are delivered. It is high time O’Connor made a record that didn’t have the foursquare thump of pop-rock at its heart – her voice and her writing deserve something braver, more beautiful.

Backing her on this tour is a perfectly fine band of players – beanpole electric guitarist Phil Edgar and sweet-voiced acoustic guitarist Jackie Rainey combine to sing harmonies with O’Connor on In This Heart – but the plodding metre feels dated, especially given the endless artistic possibilities of O’Connor’s transcendental voice.

Harbour, from 2014, shows what she can do with a faintly jazzy blues. When she performs a cappella, however, time stands still. I Am Stretched on Your Grave is a traditional song O’Connor recorded for I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got (1990). Tonight’s version raises the hairs on your gooseflesh, with O’Connor’s spectral voice soaring, and her intonation suggesting everything from traditional Celtic music to Arabic devotionals.

In 2015, O’Connor retired Nothing Compares 2 U from her live repertoire, saying she didn’t emotionally relate to the song any more. It’s back, with new melismas and missing absolutely none of its heartbroken power. Even more shivery, however, is the moment in the encore, when O’Connor starts her newest song, Milestones, without accompaniment and with the microphone switched off. Gradually, her voice rises and the amplification is turned back on. “Evil is not my true nature,” she sings. For a few pregnant seconds, this busy venue is in rapt silence.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Nothing Compares review – moving documentary finds Sinéad O’Connor ahead of her time
Kathryn Ferguson’s film argues that the fearless Irish star was, above all, a protest singer

Wendy Ide

09, Oct, 2022 @11:30 AM

Article image
Rememberings by Sinéad O’Connor review – the sound and the fury
The singer’s jaw‑dropping account of her troubled childhood and rocky fame is patchy but no less truthful for it

Kitty Empire

06, Jun, 2021 @8:30 AM

Article image
Nothing Compares review – poignant, if limited, Sinéad O’Connor documentary
A new look at the life and career of the controversial singer shows us mostly what many of us already know but does so effectively

Jordan Hoffman

22, Jan, 2022 @2:45 AM

Article image
Nothing Compares review – the uncompromising talent of Sinéad O’Connor
Documentary celebrates maverick musician once ridiculed for championing causes that have since become mainstream

Peter Bradshaw

05, Oct, 2022 @8:00 AM

Article image
David Byrne review – still making sense
The cerebral ex-Talking Heads frontman rolls into town with an immaculately drilled and dressed ensemble – and joyous music

Kitty Empire

23, Jun, 2018 @3:00 PM

Article image
Britney Spears review – a pop survivor, still in the zone
The songs are first-rate, the moves hypnotic, but the diva is strangely lacking in presence. When you’ve got this many hits, though, perhaps that doesn’t matter

Kitty Empire

26, Aug, 2018 @8:00 AM

Article image
Beyoncé and Jay-Z review – still crazy in love after all these years
A spectacular set of hits and more hits proves a fascinating showcase of the ups and downs of the world’s foremost musical marriage

Kitty Empire

10, Jun, 2018 @8:00 AM

Article image
Courtney Barnett: Tell Me How You Really Feel review – still a songwriter to beat
Melbourne’s contemplative indie rock star addresses the trials of squaring love with life on the road on her direct and downbeat second album

Kitty Empire

19, May, 2018 @5:00 PM

Article image
Kylie Minogue review – rhinestone cowgirl delivers
Channelling heartache and Dolly Parton, Kylie is reborn as a double-denim country queen at the first outing of her multifaceted new album

Kitty Empire

17, Mar, 2018 @6:00 PM

Article image
Morrissey review – this once charming man
A handful of great Smiths songs can’t disguise the fact that the blustering 80s idol is in irreversible decline

Kitty Empire

04, Mar, 2018 @9:00 AM