After her two searing albums and uncounted public displays of personal distress, we’ve learned a few things about Sinéad O’Connor: There’s nothing she can’t sing, she’s swamped by emotion, and there’s no telling what she’ll do next.
So it’s hardly a shock that her latest release, Am I Not Your Girl?, isn’t a pop album but instead a collection of torch songs with lavish big-band accompaniment, or that it’s one of the strangest records ever made.
O’Connor begins by belting, more or less through clenched teeth, ”Why Don’t You Do Right?,” a 1920s song made famous in 1942 by Peggy Lee, about a no-good man. Then she whispers a six-minute version of ”Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.” Delivering lines like ”(I’ll) worship the trousers that cling to him” without a hint of irony, she turns the normally wistful standard into a seemingly endless tale of desperate obsession.
Love this or hate it — and many people who have heard advance tapes of the album already hate it — O’Connor can sing these songs. She seizes them with force and finesse, her voice breathing a thousand shades of longing, lust, and despair. And her conscious or unconscious agenda soon becomes clear. She’s going to deconstruct Tin Pan Alley, exposing hidden layers of unending pain.
What O’Connor does with ”Bewitched,” though, is nothing compared with her transformation of a Loretta Lynn song, ”Success Has Made a Failure of Our Home.” Right at the start, a tortured brass riff tears it from its country roots. And at the end O’Connor dissolves it into an all-but-deranged cry of despair, repeating ”Am I not your girl?” for a full minute and a half, 27 times in all, with the brass shrieking behind her.
After that, the emptiness of ”Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” comes as a shock, not a relief. And ”I Want to Be Loved by You,” which Marilyn Monroe crooned in Some Like It Hot, brings a bigger jolt, because O’Connor sings it seriously, down to the last trembling ”boop boop de doo.” Oh, she sounds sultry, but disturbingly so, as if-with lyrics like ”I couldn’t aspire/To anything higher/ Than to fill the desire/To make you my own” — the song were really about submission so total it borders on S&M.
O’Connor offers 10 torchy numbers, and if she’d stopped there, the LP would be easier to defend. Instead, she added three really bizarre items that take her over the brink. She all but breaks down in ”Scarlet Ribbons,” an aching folk tune. Then ”Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” returns as a vapid jazz-lite instrumental. The final track isn’t even listed. In a voice so tense it’s ready to break, she asks: ”Can you really say you’re not in pain like me?” She expects an apocalypse, and predicts lots of us will die.
Is ”Scarlet Ribbons” a look back at innocence? Does the instrumental ”Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” show us how vacant pop standards can be? This album is in some ways a triumph, and in others a flagrant mess. I can’t judge it coldly; I’d rather give it a grade that reflects how much most of it, even the final rant, touches me. A-