The 100 greatest UK No 1s: No 12, Sinéad O'Connor – Nothing Compares 2 U

Seismic and ethereal, O’Connor’s cover of an obscure Prince track remains a haunting, heartbreaking evocation of lost love

It’s been 30 years and 142 days since Sinéad O’Connor scaled the charts with Nothing Compares 2 U, her only Top 10 hit. It wasn’t the only anomalous thing about this agonised account of post-breakup malaise: it was a seismic power ballad from an alternative rock star on the ascent; a cover from an artist beloved for the intimate, bracing candour of her songwriting. In the accompanying video, O’Connor came over as ethereal and wounded; in reality, she would soon earn a reputation as one of the decade’s most fearlessly outspoken figures. Nothing Compares 2 U was an outlier and an instant classic – in many ways, O’Connor never recovered from its success.

By the time the 80s ended, O’Connor had established herself as a force to be reckoned with; her 1987 debut, The Lion and the Cobra, wove Ireland’s heady folk tradition through spiky new wave to considerable acclaim. O’Connor’s manager, Fachtna Ó Ceallaigh, suggested she record Nothing Compares 2 U for the followup. An obscure album track written by Prince and released by his side project the Family in 1985, in O’Connor’s hands it was an obvious hit: the magisterial simplicity of the vocal melody shining over a spare and slightly schmaltzy instrumental. There were more devastating moments on her second album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got (in particular Three Babies, a song about miscarriage), but, on Nothing Compares, O’Connor gave one of the most compelling vocal performances in pop history: shattered but single-minded, distraught yet disgusted by the idea of leaving her heartbreak behind. She’s so convincing – especially in the video, famous for the real tears she cries – that it feels almost ghoulish to witness.

Sinéad O’Connor: Nothing Compares 2 U – video

According to the Family vocalist, Paul Peterson, Prince “didn’t like” O’Connor’s version. The animosity didn’t end there: in 1991, O’Connor began telling an anecdote in which Prince threatened her with violence at his home. Startlingly, O’Connor’s four-week stint at No 1 meant Nothing Compares 2 U outperformed all of Prince’s releases in the UK (and, in the US, only When Doves Cry was a bigger chart success), which may well have been a cause for consternation. The fact Prince released a new, live version in 1993 might count as harder evidence of his displeasure.

O’Connor’s Nothing Compares 2 U is clearly superior to all the versions that came from Prince’s camp. On the Family’s stilted and strangely apathetic rendition, the verses are spliced with harmonies that spill over into a duet, while Prince’s 1993 recording is a full-blown call-and-response with collaborator Rosie Gaines: both convey a togetherness that undermines the insulated sadness of the lyrics. (Prince’s original version, recorded in 1984, is punctuated by similarly jarring funky flourishes.) O’Connor also changed the arrangement of the chorus, shifting the “to you” into a dissonantly beautiful monotone and spiking the pitch of “nothing” on the titular lyric – melodic tweaks that communicate despair with minimal frills.

By drawing out the emotional weight that eluded its creator, O’Connor fashioned one of the all-time great cover versions. There was a price. Its evergreen appeal – charting as recently as 2012, its video still a music channel staple – and its deviation from the rest of her work fragmented O’Connor’s career: it made more sense to view her as a one-hit wonder than a multifaceted musician. O’Connor’s troubling behaviour in the intervening years, from incendiary political protest to Twitter cries-for-help, has arguably overshadowed even her biggest hit. In musical terms, however, time has only cemented Nothing Compares 2 U’s place in the pop pantheon. Three decades on, this haunting, heart-wrenching evocation of the grief of lost love remains peerless.

Contributor

Rachel Aroesti

The GuardianTramp

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