The New Yorker: Listen to Sinéad O’Connor

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Photograph by Bobby Bank/Getty

In the years since she released “The Lion and the Cobra” in 1987, at age twenty, Sinéad O’Connor has alternately amazed and flummoxed people. She tends to have a shaved head; she criticizes the Catholic Church for its history of child abuse; in 1992, she performed Bob Marley’s “War” on “Saturday Night Live,” said “Fight the real enemy,” and tore up a photograph of the Pope. This was meant to protest child abuse, but it was taken as Pope abuse. Later, she was ordained as a priest. She’s spoken about having bipolar disorder. She’s writtenopen letters to Miley Cyrus, expressing concern for her, which Cyrus appreciated about as much as Lorne Michaels appreciated the Pope-shredding, and then she expressed more concern for Justin Bieber, Britney Spears, and Amanda Bynes. These efforts are meant to be protective—O’Connor has talked about having been abused as a child, and she empathizes with young pop stars and the mentally ill. But she isn’t always received the way she hopes to be. O’Connor confounds people. They don’t know how to react.

A good way to react to Sinéad O’Connor is to listen to her music, which is wonderful. In her songs, all of her impulses—ferocious honesty, political engagement, introspection, boldness, love, protectiveness—become art. I loved her music in high school, when “The Lion and the Cobra” and “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got” came out; in 2011, hearing her ninth album, “How About I Be Me (and You Be You)?,” returned me to full-fledged fandom. It’s the work of an artist who is both maturing and retaining her edge—melodically gorgeous, sonically sane, and lyrically relentless. The opener, “4th and Vine,” is about the joy of anticipating a wedding; the next song, “Reason with Me,” tender and abashed, is about being a junkie. “I Had a Baby” is about having a child with a “man who wasn’t mine to be with.” It’s a song you won’t forget.

In August, O’Connor released her tenth album, “I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss.” Last week, she played three shows at City Winery. If rediscovering Sinéad O’Connor was a reflection on the passage of time, so was my first trip to City Winery. The venue, located in downtown Manhattan, is a bridge from my parents’ generation’s music to my own. When I got there, it reminded me of a late-seventies restaurant in Connecticut that I’d been to as a kid. Everything is made of wood: the floors, the tables and chairs, the beams. It’s decorated with wine barrels and tree branches. Ads showed on a screen: Aztec Two-Step plays the Simon & Garfunkel songbook; the Weight, a Band tribute band, featuring members of the Band. A man and a woman with short, shaggy haircuts, chunky glasses, and brown V-neck sweaters snuggled together, looking happy. The night before, I’d been at the Mercury Lounge’s Tits of Clay Lou Reed tribute. At City Winery, I sat on a wooden barstool, eating a delicious truffle-and-mushroom pizza and having an identity crisis.

Then Sinéad O’Connor came onstage. She was thin, bald, spry, tattooed, beaming, radiant. She wore black leather pants, a wide belt, a black shirt, a large Celtic-looking cross, and a priest’s collar. She was part priest, part Han Solo. She smiled—a beautiful smile that seemed to say, I’m grateful that we’re here. Let’s make some music.

Her band began to play “The Queen of Denmark,” from “How About I Be Me.” It’s by John Grant, a cover—a tortured, beautiful song. O’Connor closed her eyes and sang softly: “I wanted to change the world.” She sang a catalogue of personal failures, leading to “I hope I didn’t destroy your celebration, or your bat Mitzvah, birthday party, or your Christmas.” The song builds, crushingly—“I hope you know that all I want from you is sex—to be with someone who looks smashing in athletic wear.” It folds in a harmonized, scared-sounding part—“I don’t know what to want from this world”—that leads to a shouted blast of freedom. O’Connor stamped her foot and raised her arm, singing, “Why don’t you bore the shit out of somebody else? Why don’t you tell somebody else that they’re selfish, a weakling coward, a pathetic fraud?”

O’Connor can make lyrics like these sound sympathetic, righteous. Her performance was sensitive and totally in control. “Who knows? Maybe you’ll get to be the next Queen of Denmark,” she concluded. She bowed a little, and smiled. The cheering was wild. She had utterly transformed the room.

During every song, O’Connor closed her eyes, fully focussed on the music, a hand up testifying or down for emphasis, moving her head in a typewriter fashion, slowly to one side, then quickly the other way. Each song was like a hero’s journey: she went somewhere beyond, or within. Then she returned, opened her eyes, smiled that lovely smile, and curtseyed.

“Margaret Thatcher on TV,” she began. “Shocked by the deaths in Beijing.” This song’s earnestness had embarrassed me a bit in high school, but in recent years I’ve been struck by its powerful beauty. “England’s not the mythical land of Madame George and roses,” she sang. “It’s the home of police who kill black boys on mopeds.” The band returned. A fan approached the stage and handed O’Connor a black scarf with a red-yellow-and-green border. Later, she smiled and said, “Anybody is always welcome to throw Rasta shit over here.”

She sang “Jealous,” from “Faith and Courage,” and “Make a Fool of Me All Night,” one of the funniest come-ons I’ve heard in a while. I like the way she approaches sex in her music. When my friends and I heard “I Want Your (Hands on Me)” in high school, it was a wonderful revelation: simple, forthright, not a vamp. She wasn’t coming on to listeners, rock-star style; she was addressing a person, and it felt human, feminist. When I heard a lacrosse player singing it to himself in the hallway in 1988, it made me laugh a bit, with happiness.

At the aggressive click of drumsticks—“The Emperor’s New Clothes”!—I suddenly wanted to hear all the old songs I loved. They sounded fantastic, an organic part of the show. An older woman next to me tapped her glittery silver shoes. Then O’Connor sang “The Last Day of Our Acquaintance.” People sang along: “I’ll meet you later in somebody’s office.” Another timeless number, suitable for midlife divorces. It builds in pain and anger, but also in the power of asserting and accepting something painful. By the end, it feels like an anthem; the guitar and drums surround her, the singing is righteous, and the song has transcended loneliness. “I know your answer already,” she sang. She smiled, and audience members leapt up and waved their hands in the air. O’Connor bowed and said good night.

For an encore, she sang “War,” by Bob Marley, a song that she said “belongs to New York.” Its lyrics are the text of a human-rights speech that Haile Selassie gave at the United Nations, and it also was the song she sang on “S.N.L.” and again, defiantly, after thunderous booing at a Dylan tribute at Madison Square Garden. Here, at City Winery, she put the fan’s Rasta cloth in her back pocket, took the mic, and sang it again, with grace.

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