Oct 10

SINEAD O’CONNOR – “Nothing Compares 2 U”

FT + Popular169 comments • 13,767 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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  1. 121
    Tom on 11 Nov 2010 #

    Pop is good at the numinous, not so good at the religious. Is my one-sentence summary of a more than usually complex subject.

    I am a lifelong atheist, but on the topic of Christian Rock I feel my believing brothers’ pain, since no song I can recall about the NON-existence of God has ever been any good either.

  2. 122
    Paulito on 11 Nov 2010 #

    @111: And now, I see, you’re playing the “facts” card…good grief. Do I really need to point out that this whole debate – like virtually all others on this forum – revolves around opinions? I’ve contextualised my view of SOC with some specific examples of her behaviour, and I don’t believe I’m obliged to do more than that. Your own opinion appears to be that Sinead can do no wrong, and you’re entitled to it. Of course, if you have some “facts” to back this up, I’d be delighted to hear them.

    @121: “Dear God” by XTC is pretty good, even if it teeters on the brink of cliché at times.

  3. 123
    Steve Mannion on 11 Nov 2010 #

    I’m sure we touched on good pro-God songs on another Popular thread where I invoked ‘Stand On The Word’, Roy Davis Jr’s ‘Gabriel’, Todd Edwards and other Holy House staples. That said the lyrics and sentiments expressed are by no means what makes those records particularly great, but I find disco context does (or did) tend to make the message more palatable.

    I don’t suppose criticism of religion and feelgood dancing times go together at all – but any examples?

  4. 124
    Mark M on 11 Nov 2010 #

    Re 108: I think you’re (deliberately?) missing the point here – a celebrity doing something supposedly surprising is showbiz news, which sadly these days means all news. So obviously nobody is famous for being gay or a Buddhist or whatever, but the public announcement by someone notorious of a change in status is likely to generate a mild amount of attention. So for instance, today it’s possible to read all about how Kim Kardashian has broken her toe and Demi Lovato has checked into a clinic. And it’s certainly a tactic of the chronically publicity-seeking to keep a stream of such stories in the news. I suspect many of Sinead’s rubbish moves were sincere, but there were so many that the effect – to non-fans – was not dissimilar to following the collective deeds and public words of the Baldwin brothers.

  5. 125
    wichita lineman on 11 Nov 2010 #

    Re 121: Blasphemous Rumours isn’t so bad. As for anti-religious art – off the top of my head, the Lettriste Easter Mass in 1950 was a pretty splendid anti-Catholic art happening. And of course there can be good Christian ‘rock’ artists – Judee Sill, for one – just not a huge number, and mostly of the loner folk variety.

    Re 113: Secular icons work for me – Anita Loos, Del Shannon, Brian Clough, Tristan Tzara, Stan Laurel, Barbara Hepworth et cet. No religion = no art doesn’t hold up. I think religion will, eventually, naturally die, but art won’t. And obv I don’t dislike anyone just for having religious beliefs, same as I wouldn’t automatically dislike anyone who supports Chelsea.

  6. 126
    Billy Smart on 11 Nov 2010 #

    ‘Reality Asylum’ by Crass is a devastating atheist pop artwork, a scary full-scale deconstruction of Christianity as an instrument of oppression and repression.

    Kraftwerk’s music clearly has a religious connotation, in being preoccupied with attaining a state of humility in the presence of the divine. Okay, the divine is manmade in this case, but a religious person would consider human endeavour as in part being the work of god.

    The thing that annoys me of blanket anti-religious sentiment is that it reduces religion to the institutions of the church and presumes that all religious worship takes the form of evangelical, literalist, faith.

  7. 127
    punctum on 11 Nov 2010 #


    P, everywhere else things perhaps “revolve around opinions.”

    In my little tugboat of resistance, however, self-awareness is what I’m trying to draw out whenever someone starts an argument and I’m not sure you have much of it.

    Why, for instance, do you continually return to the “playing cards” analogy rather than providing an evidential basis for why Sinead might be wrong to have said and done all of these things other than the clear fact that you don’t like her?

    Furthermore, what’s the real reason you don’t like her?

    It’s important, so please try to be truthful, above all to yourself.

  8. 128
    Chelovek na lune on 11 Nov 2010 #

    @119 Much appreciated. I wasn’t trying to start a fight. Still, the tone of debate here is generally most civil, so feel free to disagree as overtly as you wish.

    @121 That’s not a bad distinction to make at all, and one that I think I agree with.

    @125 Is “Blasphemous Rumours” really an anti-religious/anti-God/anti-Christian song? I’m never really read it as such, not least as the notion of blasphemy, albeit perhaps not to quite the same extent as the notion of heresy, only really makes sense within the context of an explicitly religious belief system. Plus, the point is surely that he DOESN’T want to start any blasphemous rumours…. I suppose the point is (as many greater theologians have put it) that faith does not exclude the kind of doubts that are expressed in that song. Best ever pop song about theodicy, bar none, I think; and beautifully complimented by its wonderfully warm double-A side “Somebody”. And I think some later DM (most obviously several of the tracks on “Songs of Faith and Devotion”, and even more obviously “Personal Jesus”) actually has quite a deeply (if in many cases implicit) underlying Christian aspect or tone to it.

    I suppose in the realm of literature, something like Huysman’s “Against Nature” (or however you prefer to refer to “A rebours”) is not a bad bit of anti-religious art. But its references are so strongly and explictly modelled on an inversion of (and not simply a rejection of) Catholicism that…well, it’s hardly surprising that the author returned to the church.

    Certainly good quality art (of whatever kind) can exist that doesn’t seek to deal with matters of “eternity” or “religious truth” (I wish English had, like Russian ,two differnet words to distinguish between different varieties of “truth”, istina and pravda) or so on. I mean, the Beats International track just next to this one is evidence of that for starters…

  9. 129
    wichita lineman on 11 Nov 2010 #

    Re 128: Interesting point. I had to look up ‘theodicy’. On a basic level, I always thought the chorus (“I don’t want to start any blasphemous rumours, but…”) was a play on “I’m not a racist, but…” rather than someone genuinely not wanting to upset the applecart. Certainly my Christian colleague in Our Price Epsom wasn’t too impressed when it came out in late ’84, nor with Upside Down by the Jesus & Mary Chain.

    Re 126: Crass! I’m in the dark! But always thought the artwork was v intriguing! Could really do with some guidance, Billy, if you’ve got the time. And as a fan, I’m also intrigued to know what you make of their catalogue being available for a price on itunes, but not free on spotify.

  10. 130
    Rory on 11 Nov 2010 #

    @124: I’m questioning/challenging the notion that simply discussing one’s sexuality (or religion, or musical interests) in public constitutes a “publicity stunt”. The 99% of us who aren’t celebrities get to discuss our private lives and interests with others, if we wish, without everyone accusing us of publicity seeking. (Some might, I suppose — cf. the “narcissism” critiques of blogging.)

    What I’m trying to say is that there’s a difference between revealing things about yourself in an interview because you were asked and shouting that same information from the rooftops in the hope that someone will notice you. Maybe Sinead O’Connor did undertake a campaign of in-your-face lesbian Rasta-loving publicity stunts, taking out full page newspaper ads and gatecrashing the Taoiseach’s news conferences with a Bob Marley boombox and wearing an L-Word t-shirt; if so, I didn’t hear about it. But if the information just came out in interviews, it’s pretty tenuous to call it a publicity stunt.

    I’m not saying she’s a saint; I own a bunch of her CDs, but I don’t read books about her or follow her every word, so I don’t know enough to say. But I’m disturbed by the idea that someone becoming known for their lesbianism or Rastafarianism or religiosity is therefore a publicity hound. They might independently be a publicity hound, but that requires further evidence.

    What are these “desperate shenanigans” and “rubbish moves” of O’Connor’s, anyway? If she does have a genuine history of publicity stunts, beyond that famous one of 1992, I’d like to know about them. @106, you mention her “public announcement (on Ireland’s most widely-watched TV chat show)” — okay, that might constitute one, but I’d want to know more about the context; “public announcement” sounds like she stood up and used a megaphone or something, which obviously can’t have happened…

    Okay, I’ve done a bit of Googling now and read a bit about her intervention for Shane McGowan when he was at his lowest, which sounds like it was done out of friendship rather than for the publicity, but maybe it played differently in the Irish press. I’ve also read about the fuss she caused in Ireland by being ordained as a priest in a breakaway church in 1999 (not the Catholic Church itself): yeah, okay, a bit stunt-y, but also the kind of thing religious non-celebs do without any fuss. So are we saying that celebrities should be held to a different standard? That they have to lead even more boring lives than ordinary people (while still making fabulous music and movies), or else they’re terrible publicity hounds? Or they have to embrace the label and go totally over the top? No middle ground? Because her ground sounds pretty middling to me, compared to some.

  11. 131
    Lex on 11 Nov 2010 #

    @112 but none of the artists I cited are from the UK – you may be right about it (though I think we should be careful to just assume that British people are that deeply sceptical to religion or, more pertinently, its effects), but this is a wider issue than just this country really.

    @124 why should “non-fans” get to have the last word on Sinéad? Every canonised artist or act has had their history written by people who are fundamentally fans, so I don’t see why seeing her actions and behaviours through the prism of people who neither know nor care very much about her is all that worthwhile.

    When I say “anti-religion” it’s certainly not an opposition to the spiritual or the numinous or even personal faith – it’s more about the structures of organised religion which are still, even in the oh-so-secular UK, pretty strong.

  12. 132
    wichita lineman on 11 Nov 2010 #

    Lex, I said English rather than British, for obvious reasons, and “suspicious” rather than “deeply sceptical”. I’m not sure about how American liberals feel, but I’m pretty sure it’s not that “the war’s already won” in such a clearly religious country. But I don’t live there so I don’t feel qualified to talk about the American perspective. I was deliberately limiting my comment to my own our middle class Surrey upbringing and my experience of living in England for 45 years.

    Otherwise, I’d like to think we’re basically singing from the same anti-religious hymn sheet.

  13. 133
    Chelovek na lune on 11 Nov 2010 #

    @129 Yes, I suppose it does (intentionally) leave itself open to multiple interpretations, like a lot of DM songs. I really don’t know what the author’s exact intentions or motivations were.

    The (very very great) Lilac Time (and Stephen Duffy as a solo artist) seem have fairly consistently walked a careful line in countless songs (counting the Christian, and explicitly Catholic references or allusions in their songs would be like counting those to masturbation in early and mid-period Billy Bragg songs; it would take forever and a day) between expressing the personal value of religious faith (“you’re not shallow, you’re not Godless” being one line that immediately jumps out), while being critical of “organized religion” and (at least some of) its adherents (“Why is it that the wicked seem to exist on eucharist and song?”). Having been there, and done that, and thought that, i don’t think this tension is really sustainable or coherent- but they do express it well, and also in a fairly understated, unobtrusive way.

    Still, with all this talk of numinosity, I wonder if we are all just procrastinating, in desperate anticipation of the opportunity to discuss the Cult of S**P…

    (EDIT….which I see has now just arrived)

  14. 134
    Billy Smart on 11 Nov 2010 #

    Re: 129. I’m afraid that I’m only familiar with a couple of Crass songs – I know ‘Reality Asylum’ from the Rough Trade Shop 30th Anniversary compilation. I’m sure that Punctum knows the full canon, though…

  15. 135
    swanstep on 12 Nov 2010 #

    oh-so-secular UK
    It’s intriguing though isn’t it – very few people go to church in the UK compared to the US etc. but the UK has a state church, has seats in the upper house set aside for religious figures, has massive amounts of education and health services delivered by faith-based entities,… The standard American perspective on all this is complete horror: on the one hand the UK state is massively infected by one church, and on the other hand this allows that church and religion more generally to become a corrupted, centralized, spiritual welfare state rather than an individual, private and local community responsibility. That is, separation of church and state is supposed on the official US model to be good for the state but also very good for churches/religion. From this perspective too the ultra-secularization of much of Western Europe is in part a consequence of failure to keep church and state separate: ultra-secularization is a kind of spiritual poverty trap created by the spiritual welfare state! Or something.

    That said, there’s a whole side of the US (Palin is a contemporary representative) born out of pre-Enlightenment puritanism that thinks that the radical Enlightenment ideas on which the country was actually founded at the end of the 18th C (and then refined at the end of the 19th C) are big mistakes, it’s famously hard for the non-religious to get elected to anything in the US, the Pres. during NC2U’s reign famously opined that atheists weren’t really citizens, and so on. So the US is much more conflicted over this stuff in fact than it’s officially supposed to be. Quite a mess.

  16. 136
    weej on 12 Nov 2010 #

    I was going to weigh in here with a list of good god-themed songs, atheist and christian, but just realised I actually made a mix of them a couple of years ago, which can be found here if anyone’s interested.
    Living in a country (China) where every song is an insipid love ballad, whatever the genre or style makes me long for non-romantic themes, and I don’t see why religion shouldn’t be one of them.

  17. 137
    swanstep on 12 Nov 2010 #

    @weej. Am downloading your podcast now – thanks – your playlist looks fascinating. May as well chip in with a few suggestions of my own. Atheist country songs are pretty rare, but Robbie Fulks gives it a good try. Much more common, of course, are things like Loretta, Alison, Alison, and pretty much every Johnny Cash and Carter Family record.

    Hmm…That Judee Sill track is great – she’s new to me. Thanks again.

  18. 138
    Dave the Hungarian on 12 Nov 2010 #

    #135 – that Bush Senior story is pretty alarming. Re his son, somebody once reacted to him saying he’d been guided by God in his invasion of Iraq by saying, “in this country people who hear voices in their head telling them to kill people end up in Broadmoor, in the States they end up in the White House!”

    God-themed songs – surprised nobody has mentioned Van Morrison yet. Certainly songs such as “Full Force Gale” are more likely than most to get me thinking “I’d like to be in that mindset”.

  19. 139
    pink champale on 12 Nov 2010 #

    #135 yes, those are some very good points. the UK isn’t secular at all – looked at in a certain light it’s not far from a theocracy! As you say, what the UK is, what england is at any rate, is a country with an unusually unreligious population, probably second only to scandinavian countries . depending which survey you believe, something around or over fifty percent of the population don’t believe in a god at all, and as far as i can tell, most of those that do believe do so not much more fervently than they believe in horoscopes (sensibly, of course, for there is about the same amount of evidence for the claims of both). there’s a lovely bit in the jeremy paxman book on the English where he simply cannot get a CofE bishop to state that it is neccessary for a person to believe in god in order to be a member of the church! certainly, my parents would have defined themselves as christians and no doubt had a vague belief in god but never went to church, never had a bible in the house, never prayed or encouraged their children to and, if they every referred to somebody as being “religious” there was no doubt at all that the term was used with disapproval. the idea that this is *because* the UK isn’t secular had never really occurred to me before. there may be something in it but the same cause and effect hardly seems to apply in ireland, or iran – i’d always thought it was more a happy accidental legacy of henry VIII’s marital difficulties.

  20. 140

    albion’s xtiniaty is a skindeep veneer of uneasy politesse over a deeply pagan reality: very much not secular but no other people’s idea of xtian either

  21. 141
    wichita lineman on 12 Nov 2010 #

    Does ‘secular’ preclude ‘witchy’? That’s a serious question. I was happy to get out a bunch of different coloured candles on oct 31 to usher in the winter and remember friends departed.

  22. 142
    Mark M on 13 Nov 2010 #

    Re 135/138: It certainly seems like the militant atheism of Marxist-Leninist states (and the furious anticlericism of the Mexican Revolution) either produced or failed to extinguish fervent religion while the dozy established church in this country oversees a totally uninterested population, Franco’s church-dominated Spain became a country where gay marriage is legal and even Iran has a considerable minority either in open conflict with the theocratic state or quietly ignoring its teachings in private. Which is to say that while I’m opposed by nature to the established church, I’m not sure that getting rid of it would actually make England a less religious place.

  23. 143
    Mark M on 13 Nov 2010 #

    It’s a sign of the weakness of the CofE that vicars have traditionally resorted to expanding their congregations by blackmail re: weddings (before the wedding venue law change of 1994) and schools.

  24. 144
    Mark M on 13 Nov 2010 #

    Re 131: Surely one of the great things about Popular is non-fans having a proper listen to and think about songs they have either never heard, not listened to in years or never gave a close listen to. And you never seem shy about offering an opinion on stuff you don’t like…

  25. 145
    lonepilgrim on 13 Nov 2010 #

    re 142 Weddings were hardly an effective tool for expanding congregations as (I believe) C of E Vicars were/are bound to allow weddings of anyone living in their Parish; Banns are read 3 weeks running -Wedding – Bosh, you’re done.
    As for schools, the drive to expand congregations has come from not from ambitious Clerics but from non-religious parents who believe (rightly or wrongly) that their child will do better at a Church aided school and that their attendance at Church will allow them to jump ahead in the queue for places.

    I tried to resist joining in this debate but ‘just when i thought i was out they pull me back in’; as my name suggests I have a relationship with faith. I have some sympathy with Dennis Potter when he said: “I’ve always thought that religion is the wound, not the bandage.”

    re 139 I’m not sure that the veneer metaphor is entirely appropriate – I’d suggest something more like an emulsion: with differing ‘quantities’ of beliefs binding and separating according to circumstances

  26. 146
    Mark M on 13 Nov 2010 #

    Re 144: Weddings indeed not an effective tool, but a short-term boost to pretty country churches with declining populations. The ‘living in the parish’ bit is the key – nobody I knew who got married in a church had the ceremony within two hundred miles of Manchester/Balham/Vauxhall where they actually lived, so couples had to shuffle down from city for a series of weekends to reestablish their connection with the church their grandparents went to etc, and are volunteered to help run the summer fete…

  27. 147
    Mark M on 13 Nov 2010 #

    Also re: 142 I meant the word ‘blackmail’ as a bit of humorous exaggeration, not always the best idea in internet discussions. I’d like to retract it. And on some level, I can understand why vicars would be unwilling to let people get something for nothing out of the church, but that just brings us back to the ambiguous nature of a state religion.

  28. 148
    swanstep on 13 Nov 2010 #

    I have a comment ‘awaiting moderation’ above… but the gist of it is just to thank weej,#136 for the link above to his podcast blog ‘Last Night a dj killed my dog’. I’ve listened to four podcasts so far and each has been *fantastic*. I highly recommend them to all Popular regulars.

    In the light of the Sinead bunfight that’s broken out here, any chance of a Sinead+John Paul 2 graphic to replace Kylie+Jive Bunny?

  29. 149

    sorted, swanstep: i believe if you log in, links are less likely to tip you into the spam filter

  30. 150

    — “i believe” is not meant to sound snarky, i’m just not certain what i’m saying is true

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