Album of the Week, April 12: The Lion and the Cobra by Sinéad O’Connor

Sinead_Lion_Cobra_OriginalSinéad O’Connor was born in County Dublin in 1966. She had a tumultuous childhood, with her parents’ rancorous divorce providing a troubled backdrop. By 15, her habitual truancy and shoplifting landed her in a church-run work center. While she chafed at the enforced structure, it provided her with a supportive environment to pursue her growing interest in music and songwriting. She landed some singing gigs and came to the attention of In Tua Nua; they recorded a track with her but felt she was too young to join the band. She continued to hone her craft, eventually forming her own band, Ton Ton Macoute. She left the group to pursue her own musical vision, signing with Ensign. Frustrated by the controlling efforts of the producer they assigned her, she convinced the label to let her take control of the album. Not yet 21, she scrapped the previous work and produced her own debut with the help of engineer Kevin Moloney. The result was a powerful blast of musical independence.

Title The Lion and the Cobra
Act Sinéad O’Connor
Label Ensign Release Date November 4, 1987
Producer Sinéad O’Connor and Kevin Moloney
U.S. Chart  36 U.K. Chart  27
Tracks
  1. Jackie
  2. Mandinka
  3. Jerusalem
  4. Just Like U Said It Would B
  5. Never Get Old
  6. Troy
  7. I Want Your (Hands On Me)
  8. Drink Before the War
  9. Just Call Me Joe

O’Connor has a deep love of her homeland and its music. That passion is clear in the opening track, the glorious Jackie, narrated by the ghost of a woman who died pining for her lover, lost at sea. It’s a smart nod to folk traditions that makes the most of her vocal power and range. The whirlwind of sound that builds behind her lament hints that this is no standard folk-rock album, however.

That becomes clear with the rocking, joyous Mandinka. With Adam Ant’s talented pal Marco Pirroni providing guitar support, O’Connor turns out a dance-rock number with hints of funk. Her voice runs from mellow to soaring to a frenetic blast, showing off her range but staying true to the song’s tight energy. It’s a celebration of a song and she wants us to join in.

Jerusalem brings back some of the folk elements with a nice acoustic guitar figure. By the time the chorus kicks in, however, it’s all her own work, with swirling guitar and driving keyboards creating a whirlwind. It’s an urgent meditation that hints at autobiography. By turns yearning and overwhelmed, Just Like U Said It Would B simmers with tension. It’s as passionate as any song on the disc, but never rises above its quiet framework, creating an almost claustrophobic celebration of the complexities of romance.Another well-chosen guest star appears on Never Get Old, as Irish superstar Enya provides a spoken intro. It helps set the liturgical feel of the song, which has a haunting vocal backdrop and a slow build. Musically restrained, it’s a nice showcase for O’Connor’s singing.

That vocal power takes center stage on the anthemic Troy. A song of want, bitterness, and resolve, it’s perhaps the finest moment on the disc. O’Connor makes the most of this tale, carefully laying out the complex threads of an unravelling romance. Her lyrics are smart and evocative, demonstrating how fully formed her talents are even on her debut. Things get lusty again on the delightful I Want Your (Hands On Me), a driving dance number that finds O’Connor growling with desire. With powerful percussion dominating the sound, it’s a smart departure that retains some of the folk/worldbeat elements and molds them into her distinctive musical vision. Desire gives way to despair on the restrained, desolate Drink Before the War. This trio of songs is a brilliant set, the finest tracks on a stellar album and a showcase of the diverse musical voices O’Connor offers.

She wraps things up with the meditative Just Call Me Joe, a low-key number that brings things to a solid close after the energy of the preceding songs. It’s a master stroke of sequencing that shows her production smarts. Sinéad O’Connor emerged from troubled youth to talented upstart to fully formed musical powerhouse. The Lion and the Cobra is a stunning debut and a singular, cohesive statement.

FURTHER LISTENING: O’Connor’s second album, i do not want what i haven’t got, made her a superstar for a moment with its international #1 cover of Prince’s Nothing Compares 2 U. Always outspoken and independent, O’Connor made the most of her suddenly expanded prominence. Unfortunately, the press liked the sensation and began paying more attention to her personality than her music. The distraction derailed her career for a time, as did the fact that she wasn’t interested in just churning out product to meet market expectations. Over the past 20 years, she has released a string of albums, alternating original studio work with surprising covers discs. Nothing quite matches the one-two punch of her first discs, but there are some strong offerings. The all-traditional album Sean-Nós Nua is a compelling look at the music that fed her early interest. All of her other albums have moments of glory, but her two most recent — How About I Be Me (and You Be You)? and I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss — are by far the strongest. While not as complex as her earliest releases, they show a mature singer and songwriter who still has a lot of passion and a unique musical vision.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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