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Oct 10

SINEAD O’CONNOR – “Nothing Compares 2 U”

FT + Popular164 comments • 8,376 views

#641, 3rd February 1990

Sinead O’Connor is one of the finest song interpreters not just because she thinks hard about the material and the feelings locked in it, but because she’s so good at placing songs into a situation. A great example of this is her version of “Chiquitita”, warm and homely where ABBA’s is melodramatic, replacing its theatrical flourishes with a cosy tick-tock rhythm like a parlour clock. In the video she makes you, the viewer-as-Chiquitita, a cup of tea and settles down for a chat, and it’s perfect: that’s exactly what her version feels like.

This ability to find an angle gives her cover versions life and variety: she’s happy to switch up her singing style as the track demands, she’s never reliant on one-size-fits-all passion. She can belt with the best of them – think of her “You’re killing me!” ranting on “Success Has Made A Failure Of Our Home”. But she’s also happy to keep her distance if that’s what the song needs. This is why the famous video for “Nothing Compares For You” – tight close-up on O’Connor’s face, a tear sliding down her cheek, her spitting some words and flinching from others – can be misleading. It makes you think the record is brilliant because of its raw, unsimulated emotion: but really it’s more subtle than that, and the artifice of the video’s framing is as much a tell as those two teardrops.

Her “Nothing Compares 2 U” is a very moving track – it captures the stasis, anger and devastation of a bad break-up with awful accuracy – but it seems to me Sinead comes to that emotion through very calculated vocal choices, particularly the shifts between a gentle vocal tone and one more edged and occasionally so harsh it almost sounds treated. Take the chorus, for instance – it builds up as a big soft rock sweep: “But nothing compares…” – and then starts to zig-zag, O’Connor picking out individual syllables – “no-THING! com-pares” – before blurring the last two into a single stabbing cry – “TOYEW”.

How does this way of singing work with the grain of the song? “Nothing Compares 2 U” is – at least partly – about control and its limits. The singer has freedom and autonomy, she knows exactly how long she’s hurt for and is withering about others’ attempts to advise or alleviate it. By the end of the song she’s acting like it’s her choice whether he comes back or not – and this coda is the record’s prettiest and most desperate moment. So the ultra-precise vocals on “Nothing Compares” dramatise this. And they allow for some magical moments – the hopelessness of “I can see whoever I choose“, and the showy melisma on “whatever I want” and “restaurant” underlining their pointlessness in a life where all activity has become decorative and empty. The defiant, then trailing “every boy I see“. The chilling first line. And – of course – “GUESS what he told me!”

I haven’t even mentioned the music, whose stately, sympathetic pulse gives O’Connor the canvas she needs to be so devastating. Compare it to the Prince-produced original by The Family and you can easily see the work this rich, understated backing is doing – the melody is there on the Family’s version but the production strands it by turning the song’s sorrow into a fog. Everything about Sinead O’Connor’s track is clear, by contrast. But there’s still something irreducibly private about it, this portrait of a woman whose grief is all she has to hold onto.

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Comments

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  1. 151
    weej on 14 Nov 2010 #

    Thanks, Swanstep. The work:feedback ratio on those has been very low indeed and I need to start making them regularly again.

  2. 152
    Billy Smart on 14 Nov 2010 #

    Re: 148. Actually, now that the age of Kylie & Jive Bunny has passed, Tom has a real problem in replacing the Popular masthead between 1990 and 1993, when Take That start having a string of chart-toppers. Over those three and a half years only two acts had more than one number one, one of whom we’ve already got up to. The other one had three number ones between 1991 and 1993, and are more usually thought of as a 1970s/80s band…

  3. 153

    Best not to have a chart-topper at all! Perhaps a stern and disappointed Q-affirmed AVATAR of DADROCK gazing down on all the silly shenanigans. Or Stephen Malkmus, looking pained.

  4. 154
    Chris on 14 Nov 2010 #

    Agree that Sinead is a wonderful interpreter of words and has a haunting voice. Her vocals on Blood of Eden by Peter Gabriel is a great example. She’s beyond kooky but I think its a shame that she slipped off the sanity boat as she had more to give.

  5. 155
    punctum on 15 Nov 2010 #

    So you believe that speaking one’s mind makes a woman “beyond kooky” and “off the sanity boat,” do you?

  6. 156
    rosie on 15 Nov 2010 #

    @155: Speaking as a woman, Marcello, I beg to dissent from your no-doubt well-intentioned defence of my sex. Of course any woman has the right to speak her mind, but the quality of the output is variable to say the least. Melanie Philips is a woman who speaks her mind, and I enjoy reading her Daily Mail column for laughs (online obviously, I wouldn’t pay good money for such a rag) but I would have no compunction about describing her as “beyond kooky” and “off the sanity boat”.

    And I agree, that is the direction Sinéad O’Connor increasingly leaned the more she found herself in the limelight.

  7. 157
    Rory on 15 Nov 2010 #

    I would just question that she hasn’t given us more, or as much as she otherwise might have, since NC2U hit the top. She’s given us a lot of fine music since then.

  8. 158
    punctum on 15 Nov 2010 #

    Evidence please, factual rather than anecdotal.

    Melanie Phillips’ work gives the impression of someone hugely disappointed by something or someone in life, using deferred hate to escape self-awareness, but I wouldn’t say she was insane.

  9. 159
    Tom on 15 Nov 2010 #

    We used to be on the same server as M3l4nie Ph1ll1ps’ blog – whenever FT went down because of a server fault it was a source of some comfort that Mel was also scuppered.

  10. 160
    flahr on 15 Nov 2010 #

    Did you ever consider some sort of blog-swap event?

    Or was she Tanya Headon and you just never told us?

  11. 161
    wichita lineman on 16 Nov 2010 #

    A great Xtian record to get you in the mood for some shopping:

    http://www.laplanetesauvage.com/soundfiles/10august/BettyLouMills_RockHim.mp3

  12. 162
    Lena on 19 Nov 2010 #

    I wish I could ban the words ‘quirky’ and ‘kooky’ from all music discourse for the next century, esp. with reference to women.

  13. 163
    El boludo on 5 Oct 2012 #

    god this song is so beautiful. One of the first songs I remember hearing. I was a pretty introspective kid & loved listening to ballads like this & staring out the window (i was 5)

    You know who did a decent version of this? Jimmy Scott. I have a real thing for “late voices”: singers whose voice has survived, not quite intact, a little fucked, towards the end of their career. Scott’s “Holding back the years” album is an example; also late-period Billie Holiday, Leonard Cohen, Bryan Ferry, even Scott Walker kinda. There are other great examples but I have forgotten them all. Remind me!

  14. 164
    hectorthebat on 12 Mar 2015 #

    Critic watch:

    1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010) 1-1001
    Blender (USA) – Standout Tracks from the 500 CDs You Must Own (2003)
    Blender (USA) – Top 500 Songs of the 80s-00s (2005) 113
    Dave Marsh (USA) – Postscript (102 Songs) to The Heart of Rock & Soul (1998)
    Life (USA) – 40 Years of Rock & Roll, 5 Songs for Each Year 1952-91 (Updated 1995)
    Michaelangelo Matos (USA) – Top 100 Singles of the 1990s (2001) 92
    OUT (USA) – The 50 Gayest Songs of the 1990s (2011)
    Pause & Play (USA) – Songs Inducted into a Time Capsule, One Track at Each Week
    Pitchfork (USA) – The Pitchfork 500 (2008)
    Pitchfork (USA) – Top 200 Tracks of the 1990s (2010) 37
    Rolling Stone & MTV (USA) – The 100 Greatest Pop Songs Since the Beatles (2000) 16
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (2004) 162
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (Updated 2010) 165
    San Antonio Express-News (USA) – Rock ‘n’ roll timeline (2004)
    Slant (USA) – The 100 Best Singles of the 90s (2011) 2
    Steve Sullivan (USA) – Encyclopedia of Great Popular Song Recordings (2013) 801-900
    TIME (USA) – The All-Time 100 Songs (2011)
    The Boston Phoenix (USA) – The 90 Best Songs of the 90s (1999)
    VH1 (USA) – The 100 Greatest Songs from the Past 25 Years (2003) 14
    Woxy.com (USA) – Modern Rock 500 Songs of All Time (combined rank 1989-2009) 765
    BBC (UK) – Pop on Trial, Top 50 Songs from the 1990s (2008)
    Gary Mulholland (UK) – This Is Uncool: The 500 Best Singles Since Punk Rock (2002)
    NME (UK) – The 100 Best Songs of NME’s Lifetime (2012) 36
    NME (UK) – The 100 Best Songs of the 1990s (2012) 73
    NME (UK) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (2014) 38
    Q (UK) – The 1001 Best Songs Ever (2003) 242
    Q (UK) – The Ultimate Music Collection (2005)
    The Guardian (UK) – 1000 Songs Everyone Must Hear (2009)
    Panorama (Norway) – The 30 Best Singles of the Year 1970-98 (1999) 6
    Theater van het Sentiment, Radio 2 (NL) – Top 40 Songs by Year 1969-2000 (2013) 3
    Berlin Media (Germany) – The 100 Best Singles of All Time (1998) 42
    Musikexpress (Germany) – The 700 Best Songs of All Time (2014) 223
    Rolling Stone (Germany) – The 500 Best Songs of All Time (2004) 239
    Rolling Stone (Germany) – The Best Singles of 5 Decades (1997)
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)
    Les Inrockuptibles (France) – 1000 Indispensable Songs (2006)
    Toby Creswell (Australia) – 1001 Songs (2005)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)
    Porcys (Poland) – The Best Songs of the 1990s (2013) 60
    Grammy Awards (USA) – Record of the Year Nominee
    Rolling Stone (USA) – Singles of the Year 1
    Village Voice (USA) – Singles of the Year 2
    Face (UK) – Singles of the Year 8
    Melody Maker (UK) – Singles of the Year 2
    New Musical Express (UK) – Singles of the Year 3
    Sounds (UK) – Singles of the Year 6
    Dagsavisen (Norway) – Single of the Year 1
    Best (France) – Singles of the Year 1

    Rock de Lux (Spain) – Songs of the Year 25

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