After the first sessions of her debut album, Sinéad O’Connor returned home and studied the peak meter on her personal recording device, singing alone, alone. The green light meant it was in the appropriate range to be recorded; yellow meant she was in danger of being cut; red meant she was too loud. Because the label had paired her with a producer she didn’t trust, or particularly liked, the teenage songwriter from Dublin realized she should internalize these measures. in order to preserve his music as it sounded in his head. “So I made my voice its own master fader”, she writes in her memoirs, Memories.
Even after she fired the producer and took his place – cutting sessions and starting over, running into a hundred thousand pounds in debt before the album was released in November 1987 – it would be an important lesson in control and control. autonomy. These were songs that lived in extremes. The accompaniment was often barely there: an ambience, stacked acoustic guitars, a biblical passage recited in Gaelic by Enya. Or it was an attack in its own right: shoegaze drones, howling ropes, military drums and dance rhythms.
And then there is his voice. It has the quality of elucidating light through stained glass but can just as easily turn into a storm, shattering windows and leaving interiors raw and destroyed. She would go on to record albums of traditional Irish folk music and roots reggae, turn a Loretta Lynn song into an apocalyptic show, rap about Ireland’s Great Potato Famine and never manage to sound silly doing it all. The best visualization of her gift to date remains a steady close-up of her face with a tear streaming down her cheek. She’s singing and you can’t look away.
The Lion and the Cobra, like all of O’Connor’s albums, requires active participation: a listener at the edge of his seat, a hand near the volume knob, a constant feeling of unease. O’Connor confessed to furnishing the Irish mountain top house where she lives alone with ‘deliberately’ uncomfortable chairs: ‘I don’t like people staying for long. His albums take a similar approach. They seem to culminate with negative space. Even in its most accessible form, O’Connor wants you to hear the way she invokes this music from the dark, quiet places she’s been buried; it floods and calms down and extends beyond our sight, like the sky after a storm.
In songs like “Mandinka” and “Jerusalem” the magic lies in the interplay between O’Connor’s voice and the cavernous rock music bed: how she stretches the titles into chorus of a word, weaving the syllables through their gnarled arrangements. In the chorus of “Mandinka”, a song about a young woman rejecting tradition, the guitar riff rises and falls as the drum rolls echo in the right and left channels. Even with these flourishes, her voice, doubled and covered in reverberation, is central to everything. The song is delivered as a miniature symphony. You can sing along with every little moment, each placed just so in the sound field.
O’Connor never saw herself as a pop artist, but she immediately had a knack for getting into people’s heads. Before breaking through with a ghostly rendition of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U”, she sought a different thrill in The Lion and the Cobra‘s “I want your (hands on me).” It is his rare song that seems to be inspired by the hits of the time, a first attempt to mix his brutal hip-hop influence with softer melodic gifts. At the time, she called it a “tongue-in-cheek song about sex” and she would end up receiving a dance remix with a verse from MC Lyte explaining how, despite the seduction of its title, “When I say no, yo, I mean no. The hook almost seems preverbal as she finds ways to subvert the franchise: “Put them on, put them on, put them on me,” O’Connor sings until the words bleed into the beat.
These simple pleasures exist in a different universe than “Troy,” a dark and ambitious ballad with lyrics ranging from Yeats’s allusion to dragons-slaying fantasy, from breathless apologies to full-blown rage. . On the album, his lyrics are supported by a string section responding to each change in his inflection. In concert, she sang it with just a 12-string guitar, her voice shaking and then crashing as if something heavy was suddenly falling from above. It was one of the only songs on the album that she admitted to being autobiographical at the time. The lyrics were in part directed to his abusive mother who died in a car crash when O’Connor was 19, but who will haunt her life and work long afterward. “I couldn’t admit that it was her that I was mad at,” she would later reflect, “so I put it on the world.”
During a troubled childhood, O’Connor escaped by radio. She was sensitive to music: violently repelled by what she hated, like her sister’s Barry Manilow poster, and obsessively devoted to what she loved, like Bob Dylan. One of his favorites was his 1979 album Slow train coming, the start of the icon’s brief career as a born-again Christian songwriter, a polarizing and misunderstood period of his career. O’Connor counts himself as one of the few disciples of the time. As recently as this month, you could spot the record in her house, perched behind her shoulder during interviews – the patron saint of hearing audiences boo and ride it anyway. Which, of course, is precisely what she did when she got the chance to honor Dylan on her 30th birthday tribute show.
By the time of this performance in October 1992, O’Connor could count many reasons why her audiences could be dismissive – at first she thought they just didn’t like her outfit. But there was also the controversy with the national anthem. She claimed that she was given the opportunity to play it before a concert in New Jersey, and she politely said no; Media quickly reported that she refused to perform if she heard him perform. There was also, of course, the moment when she appeared on Saturday Night Live and tore up a photo of the Pope that once belonged to his mother – removed from the wall as she cleaned the house after her death – and made an unrepeated statement against the Church’s history of child abuse. “Fighting the real enemy” was the clearest way she could think of to communicate her message. Many viewers took it as a provocation to fight her directly.
But for a while everyone was listening. When O’Connor performed “Mandinka” at the 1989 Grammy Awards – with the Public Enemy logo dyed through her hair in solidarity with the radical hip-hop artists snubbed by the awards ceremonies – she appeared genuinely cheerful, received by enthusiastic applause. Completely alone on a huge stage, she swiveled and shook her knees, singing at the top of the lungs in a black halter top and jeans. The performance is radiant and definitive, delivered to an insider audience who, at best, would turn their backs completely or, at worst, actively derail his career, all in the next few years.
As O’Connor’s relationship with the music industry and the press grew increasingly thorny, it was also a conscious retreat as she was worn out by the general public. At The Lion and the Cobra, you can hear her planting flags where she would later take refuge. The piercing ballad of “Just Like U Said It Would Be” gives a glimpse of the clean exorcisms of the years 1994 Universal mother; the old Irish mysticism of “Never Get Old” would be a refuge in the extraordinary of 2002 Sean-Nos Nua. And like the fragmented opener “Jackie”, told by a woman who awaits the return of her lost husband every day, defying the warnings of her community, some of her later best work has been delivered in mantra form, isolated from the noise of the world around him. “I am self-sufficient,” she said in one of them, a lesson she would spend the following decades accepting.
A few years after his release, O’Connor was already distancing himself from the blinding rage and catharsis of The Lion and the Cobra: “Now I’m a 23 year old woman,” she whispered, only half-joking. “I don’t feel as distressed as I was when I was 15.” She was adamant about not being defined by pain in her songs. After the death of Kurt Cobain in 1994, she spoke of her desire to offer her fans another path: “The tragedy is that he could have gotten out of this if he had had more faith than he could, ”she suggested. “I’m very conscious of wanting to show people that it can be done, by putting it in front of their eyes.”
By 1987, O’Connor began to accept this wisdom, but his faith was tested daily. When she fell in love with her drummer, John Reynolds, and became pregnant with her first child, the label encouraged her to have an abortion. “I was very upset and very hurt. How to choose between my career or a child? she said Rolling stone three years later, in a profile that coincided with “Nothing Compares 2 U” reaching number 1 on the Billboard charts. “I wanted the baby and decided to have it.” And that’s what she did: Jake was born that summer. The Lion and the Cobra arrived in the fall, and with it, O’Connor’s life in the public eye began.
O’Connor’s music became her armor during these battles, her stronghold as the world slowly closed in on her. 90s I don’t want what I don’t have broadened the emotional canvas of the early days in a way that welcomed a whole audience of record buyers, but The Lion and the Cobra, dense as a black cloud, proudly bent to the whims of its sole creator. Consider the end of “Troy”, when O’Connor delivers one of his pivot lines – “Every look you threw told me therefore”—Her voice raising to a heartbreaking climax. As the sound distorts in the mix, she prolongs the note, louder and louder, as if trying to pierce the monitor – a first attempt to combat the mechanisms that delivered her message, to test her limits. Or maybe just to be heard.
Depending on where you live, there are two different covers for The Lion and the Cobra. For the US release, the label opted for an angelic portrait of O’Connor with his arms crossed against his chest, eyes downcast, mouth closed in front of a shiny white background. It was an alternative to the one she preferred, used in the rest of the world. There her mouth is open, eyebrows arched, shoulders tilted slightly, capturing her in constant motion and placing the image in a sort of blur. As a young artist’s introduction to a new audience, this performance was deemed a bit too hot-tempered, too provocative. In Memories, O’Connor remembers the shoot. The photographer read the album, encouraging her to react naturally as the cameras flashed. “I seem to be screaming,” she wrote. “I was actually singing.
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