Oct 10

SINEAD O’CONNOR – “Nothing Compares 2 U”

FT + Popular169 comments • 12,954 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. 31
    lonepilgrim on 29 Oct 2010 #

    I was a big Prince fan at the time and this reminded me of ‘Condition of the heart’ in its rawness and (to a lesser extent) to ‘When doves cry’ in its musical spaciousness. I’d heard Sinead responding super positively to ‘Sign ‘o’ the times’ on a Radio 1 round table review so it came as no great surprise when she covered this.

    Just as Hendrix re-imagined ‘All along the watchtower’ to the extent that Dylan subsequently used Jimi’s arrangement so Prince went on to perform the song himself although often relying on the gospel style vocals of Rosie Gaines to simulate Sinead’s passion.

    I think O’Connor’s recording conveys an enormous depth of feeling on its own, without the video (which quickly seemed to become an example of DOYOUSEE for people who seemed unsure of the grief embodied in the voice(s). Cumbrian makes a good comparison to Roy Orbison’s choked emotions on ‘It’s over’. Punctum highlights the key phrase in an exceptional response.

    There’s an interesting update on the video in Janelle Monae’s ‘Cold War’ which features no cutaways and which emphasises its ‘raw’ unedited ‘one-take’ status with a title and timecode.
    Monae sings her own lyrics and they’re clearly significant to her but I can’t decide if her tears are because the lyrical content hits home or because she screws up the lip synch. I’m a fan but NC2U is better.
    You can decide for yourself here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lqmORiHNtN4&ob=av2e

  2. 32
    swanstep on 29 Oct 2010 #

    @Rosie. I too am surprised to hear you don’t have a soft spot/’well, that’s more like it’ reaction to this one! I agree with you that Tom’s grades (and broader assessments) for some ’60s and ’70s classics and standards seem harsh and that they’ve in turn made some of his later grades and assessments seem inflated. Tom gave Bridge over troubled Water and Je t’aime.. 5s, when surely those are exactly the sort of ‘What the hell is that sound?’/stop you in your tracks while walking down the street records that Wuthering Heights was and, I reckon Tom’s right, NCTY was. (Although like Tom, NCTY didn’t quite do it for me at the time for various reasons – possibly a bit close, going through a hell break-up at the time! And some people’s reaction to the video at the time struck me as a bit creepy IIRC).

    At any rate, I’m pretty sure NCTY would have been massive/instantly recognized as pretty extarordinary anytime for anyone (and in a counterfactual situation where it’s novel you could release it tomorrow and (I’d bet) watch it take off). Nico or Streisand or Patti Labelle or Marvin or Al Green or Curtis Mayfield…anyone great really, would all have killed for this record.

    May post another comment later – still processing punctum/marcello’s essay and the record and vid. itself again.

  3. 33
    Elsa on 29 Oct 2010 #

    I think Nina Simone could have done this in ’66, though not necessarily better. Heard it in a restaurant the other day & it jumped out at me as a record that is still startling & hasn’t aged at all.

  4. 34
    Elsa on 30 Oct 2010 #

    Furthermore, it’s the kind of record that keeps you anticipating the next great line-reading, as contrasted with many a contemporary record that give you all you’re going to hear in the first 40 seconds or so.

  5. 35
    swanstep on 30 Oct 2010 #

    @elsa. Good call on Nina Simone. This got to #2 in the UK in December ’68 – so close.

  6. 36
    Chelovek na lune on 30 Oct 2010 #

    Much as I would love to be contrarian, or reveal some severe but mysteriously overlooked flaw in this record, or change the subject slightly by going on obsessively (and truthfully) about how annoyingly misguided some of Sinead O’Connor’s public utterances can be….at the end of the day this is a heartfelt and moving interpretation of a rare quality; and really Tom and DJ Punctum have summed all this up better than I am likely to.

    A classic. No more, no less.

  7. 37
    wichita lineman on 30 Oct 2010 #

    Best hiccups since Adam Faith, bring on the Cranberries.. is that an overlooked flaw? A grotty affectation which would infect pop for years to come.

    A mindblowing song, no question, but the performance – given the singer’s issues – make me feel this is, at best, outsider art, only not as easy to interpret as Alfred Wallis.

    NC2U always makes me feel fidgety, and not always in a good way. I’d give it an 8, to show I’m not a contrarian, because it’s deft and breath-catching whatever the back story. But – oh, I hate to play Swanstep’s numbers game – this really isn’t a notch above Good Vibrations, ever ever ever.

  8. 38
    swanstep on 30 Oct 2010 #

    @wichita. I’d say that the ‘if this isn’t a 10 nothing is’ line of reasoning fits Good Vibrations perfectly, Grapevine too. Tom was a toughie back in the day, no doubt about it! :)

  9. 39
    JLucas on 30 Oct 2010 #

    God but this is good.

    It is a shame that it inevitably overshadowed the rest of her material though. Her original material has been patchy, but ‘Universal Mother’ is a breathtaking album. Rolling Stone described it as “Not the sound of a woman falling apart, but that of a woman desperately trying to hold herself together – which is infinitely more terrifying.”

    The live concert captured on ‘She Who Dwells In The Secret Place Of The Most High…” is incredible too.

    I defy anyone not to get chills from ‘Fire On Babylon’ – an incredibly raw and cathartic song about the aforementioned abusive mother.


  10. 40
    DietMondrian on 30 Oct 2010 #

    Some great writing upthread but this song has always left me cold. The instrumentation sounds cheap; her vocal warblings on “restauraaaaant” etc sound like someone struggling to find a tune; and that tear in the video – well, frankly I don’t believe it.

    And Prince’s proto-text spelling still grates.

  11. 41
    Mark M on 30 Oct 2010 #

    Yeah, I’m broadly with DietMondrian on this, really: it’s clearly not a bad song in any way, but the drums are horrible and her voice grates on me (“Her vocals here are as confessional as Kurt Cobain or Thom Yorke or Polly Harvey” someone wrote up the page – I agree, but that’s not a good thing as far as I’m concerned).

    I’ve also found her public persona immensely annoying. I do, however, remember quite enjoying one of her brother’s books.

  12. 42
    rosie on 30 Oct 2010 #

    Elsa @ 34: It’s funny you know, I kind of think of Sinéad as a kind of Nina Simone without the talent. Nina chewed up and spat out many a male interviewer but she did it with panache and as a super-intelligent black woman growing up in pre-Civil Rights America one with many reasons to be angry — Sinéad for all her snarling and spitting at the world just seemed to me a self-publicising “Poor Me!” narcissist. I know which of the two I’d rather have held up as a role model for my daughter (who, approaching her tenth birthday when this was number one, had been exposed to an awful lot of Nina Simone!)

    swanstep @ 32: Yes, there’s an element of contrarianism in my comments and indeed NCTY really does stand out from the material around it but that, to my ears anyway, ain’t saying much. Plonk it down in 1966, as I suggest, and it looks rather less of a prominent landmark. Hello Aretha! Great to see you Grace! How you doin’ Levi? What fettle Brian? I know the greatest era of pop is one’s own era and the 1960s was mine, but I think there was more too it than that. Tom made a remark early on in Popular about pop getting better with each succeeding decade and that was a provocation to me not least because I don’t believe things would be better if only the technology was more sophisticated. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been able to learn from Tom about my own era — I wasn’t alone in raising an eyebrow at the 10 for ‘Boots’ but since Tom made me listen to the genius of Lee Hazlewood’s arrangement more closely I see the logic of that 10 as impeccable. I don’t think many of us would begrudge 10 for Eleanor Rigby (and Tom was harsh, oh! so harsh, on the Beatles generally) and there’s at least two others from 1966 – Reach Out and Good Vibrations, back to back even – that have the undeniable stop-you-in-your-tracks power to have been shoo-in 10s for me and, since we’re on the subject of dealing-with-loss-realistically songs, I’m becoming convinced that Paint It Black (no comma from me) should have one too. Had River Deep hit the top that would have been 10 from me too. I really can’t think of another year that even comes close to such a depth of top-notch pop performance, and with such a variety too because there’s no one form that dominates. Sinéad would really have to work hard for attention amongst that lot.

  13. 43
    Tom on 30 Oct 2010 #

    #37 If we’re going to dock points because of relating to things as “outsider art” then probably best not to mention Brian Wilson!

    FWIW the 10s I think I was too generous on are “Atomic” and M/A/R/R/S – the 9 I think should have been a 10 is “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and there are a bunch of 7s and 8s I was a point out on. (I think about this stuff too much! If I ever finish I will put a “revised mark” field in as a present to myself….)

  14. 44
    flahr on 30 Oct 2010 #

    I think you can be forgiven for the M|A|R|R|S thing – while I agree that in comparison to eg “Beat Dis” or “Theme…” it’s not as good, the fact of its importance probably spurred you to make it a 10.

    (I realise you don’t mark on importance & I’m not saying you should – saying in that instance you may have let it sway you. You weren’t too generous by much though!)

    “Nothing Compares” then – unforch I have the opposite problem to Rosie in that it is I never experienced a proper hearing-it-for-the-first-time – it’s always been there as far as I’m concerned and so it’s very difficult to get worked up about it.

  15. 45
    wichita lineman on 30 Oct 2010 #

    I was talking about Good Vibrations rather than A Day in the Life of a Tree, but I take your point. Sorry, it was a pretty rotten post, I was just feeling lonely in my non- love of this. Several posts since have nailed what I didn’t like and still don’t like about Sinead and her performance. Attention seeking rather than brave.

  16. 46
    thefatgit on 30 Oct 2010 #

    I get the impression that some 10’s aren’t absolutely nailed on 10’s Especially the M/A/R/R/S #1 which I said was a 10 at the time, but on another day would possibly have been marked 9, purely because of the presence of borrowed content. But then I gave Sinead a 10 and PSB’s AOMM a 10, because I love those songs. And there must be a case for a 9.5 mark for “landmark” #1’s which are exceptionally good, but their importance sets them apart from 9’s, which could have been a 10 on any given day if the conditions for marking are slightly ambiguous (West End Girls), and even important but exceptionally good records that get 9’s (Billie Jean), which have been widely accepted as nailed on “classics”. I know we have to trust Tom that his marking very much depends on how he feels about THAT record on THAT day, but if he admits he’s wavered on some records, then why not have a .5 differential if only to suggest that given the right conditions it could possibly marked higher or even lower?

    Good grief…it’s a thorny little dilemma, isn’t it?

  17. 47
    Alfred on 30 Oct 2010 #

    This and Madonna’s “Vogue” hit the U.S. around the same time (late spring ’90), and I can remember their impact was seismic: one of the few times in the nineties when every segment of the audience loved the same two hits.

  18. 48
    flahr on 30 Oct 2010 #

    Blimey, listening to it again I really wish I could have heard it new first time around – I can see so much stately power in it. As it is it’s like someone awarding 100% to beds.

  19. 49
    Special Girl AKA on 30 Oct 2010 #

    I was 9 when this came out and my clearest memory of being 9 is sitting in a chip shop in Padstow, mesmerised by this song. Or the video, or both. (My second clearest memory of that year is getting the lyrics to Better The Devil You Know in Smash Hits and trying to sing along to Kylie on TOTP: challenging).

  20. 50
    Kat but logged out innit on 30 Oct 2010 #

    I have to say I preferred Technotronic at #2. Humpus Dumpus JAM TRIP on this! 60bpm was faaaaaaar too slow for me.

  21. 51
    swanstep on 31 Oct 2010 #

    Tom@15’s reminiscing about Sinead and Eno selling cds to him has reminded me of one of my favorite, ‘Nick Hornby couldn’t make this up’ stories, which I came across just a few weeks ago at the Onion’s avclub:

    “I remember getting extremely angry one time in The Wherehouse when I saw a copy of Superunknown USED. USED!!!! That meant someone sold it! I couldn’t believe that shit! I wanted to track down whoever did that and find out what the fuck was wrong with them!! I was seriously pissed off by that.”

    Lots of avclub-ers immediately chimed in to confirm that, yes, they too had had this (kind of) thought…

  22. 52
    koganbot on 31 Oct 2010 #

    Ah, the wave of nostalgia I feel when reading this thread! Not for the song, but for the very first issue of Radio On, which contains this immortal line from Scott Woods: “Does Chuck Eddy really believe that ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ is the worst single of the year, as he voted in the Rolling Stone poll just recently?” The issue also has Phil listing the performer of “I Don’t Wanna Cry” as “Uriah Carey,” which I remembered as “Urea,” which would have been even funnier. (Scott and I were shortly able to turn Chuck and Phil around on Mariah, but Scott was never able to persuade Chuck on Sinead.)

    In any event, my own contrarian instincts are in full force right now, as I start muttering to myself and getting my can ready in order to spray-paint “Spareness is the opiate of the upper middle class” on the nearest retaining wall. I can’t think of a song that would suffer more from being hailed as a classic, would be more utterly destroyed by piety and reverence, fidgeting children around the world dreading its opening chord and the hush in the room that follows, listeners to the right and left being deeply moved. An alienation factory under construction, and there’s nothing in the song to resist it. Whereas with, e.g., Dylan, no matter how lost a song is in the mists of praise, there’s always a deliberately absurd rhyme and mauled syllable or twelve to guffaw at or abominate and to pull the thing from pedestal down to teeming swamp. (And as with Dylan, so with Beatles and Stones and Johnny.)

    This doesn’t mean that Tom shouldn’t give this a ten or that you guys shouldn’t like it so much. And with your commentary in mind, especially Tom’s and Dave’s close observation, I may listen to it more intensely and see what it gives back. I haven’t heard it in years. I just wonder about the masterpiece treatment. At the time I vastly preferred Mariah’s unfettered and irresponsible melisma, and my guess is that I still will. I do remember liking this song, and in the company of other good stuff, the land of “Every Beat Of My Heart” and “The Boomin’ System” and Chill Rob G and “No More Lies” and “Enjoy The Silence” and “Up All Night,” it was fine.

  23. 53
    Paulito on 31 Oct 2010 #

    If I may be permitted to return to the Tintin debate further upthread, for my money ‘The Castafiore Emerald’ is the funniest Tintin story (although ‘Flight 714’, despite its dark plot, is exquisitely hilarious in parts); ‘Prisoners of the Sun’ the most exciting; and ‘Explorers on the Moon’ the most moving. ‘Tintin in Tibet’ is nice but somewhat soppy, and the Yeti stuff makes it too fantastical for my tastes.

    As for the song under discussion: unfortunately, critiques of ‘NC2U’ tend to be tainted by Sinead’s subsequent behaviour – a fact well illustrated by the reviews here, alternately gushing in their admiration for her political antics or repelled by same. I know it can be hard to separate a song from its performer’s public persona, particularly where that persona is as larger-than-life and divisive as that of Sinead O’Connor. However – and this is coming from someone who finds her carry-on massively overbearing and irritating – ‘NC2U’ deserves to be judged purely on its own merits (a truth well observed by Tom’s superb appraisal). By that benchmark, it’s a stone cold classic. Perhaps not a perfect 10, but – to pick up on thefatgit’s musings – very possibly a 9.5.

  24. 54
    Paulito on 31 Oct 2010 #

    Further to the above, I should perhaps clarify that I am referring only to *some* of the reviews here. Many of the other commentaries confine their scope, quite rightly, to the song and not the singer.

  25. 55
    Paulito on 31 Oct 2010 #

    One more comment – I think Rosie is dead right that Tom has been a bit stingy in his markings for some of the 1960s entries, and unforgiveably harsh on the Beatles (only one 10? ‘She Loves You’ only an 8? Come on, ref!). And, for what it’s worth, I was born in 1978 and I don’t regard 60s music as some kind of untouchable sacred cow (not that I’m saying Rosie does either); there was plenty of dross then and there’s been plenty of gold since. But, to me, the sonic advances of the last 40 years accentuate, rather than diminish, the extraordinary imagination, verve and barrier breaking – within what can now be seen as the severe limitations of the technology of the time – that characterises so many of the earlier #1s.

  26. 56
    Erithian on 31 Oct 2010 #

    #40 DietMondrian re the tear – the story Sinead told was that on singing the line “all the flowers that you planted Mother”, powerful memories of her mother came to mind, hence the tear – unplanned but you’re not exactly going to yell “CUT!” if it happens.

    Coming late to this, but flahr’s “stately power” sums it up, and it was so good to have something at number one that took pop and its artistic potential a bit more seriously after the dreadful run we’d had. Difficult to add to what has been said on both sides of the ledger, but this is a hugely classy and beautiful reading of the song. Maybe not quite a 10 in my book, but we’re spending too much time quibbling about marks anyway.

    ##19 and 51 about stars selling records: Danny Baker may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but his finest hour was an interview with Elton John earlier this year in which they reminisced about the days when they both worked in Denmark Street. For years afterwards, post-stardom, Elton had a standing order at a record shop and would pop in to help himself to records that were kept to one side for him. And if a customer came in while he was there, it wasn’t unknown for Elton to hark back to his old job, emerge from under the counter and serve them. So you’d go to ask about the latest Chicken Shack LP or whatever, and find yourself being served by somebody whose music had accounted for 2% of worldwide record sales the previous year.

  27. 57
    xyzzzz__ on 31 Oct 2010 #

    @ post 33: Love that this was played at a restaurant! On Valentine’s Day, I hope.

    Usually I can’t stand this kind of string arrangement but its really well-judged here.

    Can’t wait till 2 Unlimited get the next 10 score!

  28. 58
    Rory on 1 Nov 2010 #

    Unlike most of the recent Popular number ones, this one soundtracks part of my autobiography, not for any particular lyrical resonance but because it was so there. NC2U was number one in Australia for eight weeks starting at the end of February 1990, which overlapped with the beginning of my honours year. (In the Australian university system, honours is a separate and optional year after a three-year degree, more like the one-year taught masters degrees in the UK, and the experience is pretty intense.) Throughout those first weeks of essay writing and article reading, this song and its parent album were never far from my stereo, whether it was tuned to FM or playing a CD.

    I had first heard Sinead O’Connor on the soundtrack to Captive, a film I’d never seen (and still haven’t), bought only because it was U2-related. My cousin introduced me to The Lion and the Cobra when she visited a year or two later, along with some weird band from Iceland who sang about birthdays. Of the two singers, I preferred the one from the land of ire.

    The less-accessible stuff on I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got came as no surprise, then, and when I listen to it again now it all feels deeply familiar, sunk into some submerged part of me, to surface once every few years when O’Connor releases a new album or EP… apart from the last few, when I seem to have lost track after Sean-Nos Nua.

    I heard all the criticisms along the way, of course: the attention-seeking (as if any performer isn’t!), the worthiness (listened to Sometime in New York City lately?), the music’s difficulty (it was true, some of it didn’t grab me; but her voice always gave it interest, even when I couldn’t love it). What impressed me was how little the criticisms seemed to interfere with her sense of herself as an artist; every few years, she would release another album that ignored whatever everyone else wanted her to be or not to be, and struck off in a direction of her own.

    Yet when I ask myself why I actually own most of her discography, it’s not because of “Mandinka” or “The Emperor’s New Clothes” or “My Darling Child” or “This is to Mother You” or “No Man’s Woman”, as much as I enjoy them; it’s because of this. This song and its continuing capacity to sound new has carried me through half a dozen album purchases, and although I might quibble over whether it matches other personal 10s (it doesn’t have the joyous quality of most of them), it has to be one.

    Of all the criticisms of O’Connor, that of joylessness always seemed to carry the most weight. The parody of her on Father Ted made me laugh as much as any of that brilliant sitcom did. But when I now learn, from following links away from this thread, that O’Connor spent some of her youth in a Magdalene laundry, I can’t fault her even for that. If you haven’t seen Peter Mullan’s 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters, it will tell you more than you can bear about that subject: in a review at the time, I wrote that “watching this was like being fed head-first through a mangle: I was cringing, literally flinching away from the screen”. If that was just watching it, imagine living it.

    Tintin in Tibet is certainly one of my favourites, possibly my second-favourite, but the winner has to be Destination Moon. I never owned Explorers as a kid, only read a library copy once or twice, so the cliffhanger ending of Destination lost little of its power on many, many re-readings. And it has the best cover of all.

    @43: So you’re holding firm on the most glaring 9 of all, Tom! Fair do’s.

    @54: This is our only chance to discuss her directly on Popular, so it’s no surprise that the scope of many comments is wider than the song alone.

  29. 59
    swanstep on 1 Nov 2010 #

    @rory, 58. Nice comment (8 weeks at #1 in aussie – wow), and thanks for that link to Sinead’s article. It’s a really well-organized piece – the US occasionally invades countries on slenderer briefs than that (haw haw).

    I must add that I’ve really been enjoying listening to Sinead’s albums again, for the first time in ages over the last few days. With the perspective of time she feels like a literally crucial/crossroads figure. On the one hand for me she looks back to that generation of vaguely-strident, feminist post-punk gals like Rhoda and Tracey Thorn and on the other hand she seems to anticipate and possibly be a big (unacknowledged?) influence on the Jeff Buckleys and Thom Yorkes of the ’90s (early Radiohead stuff I love that’s basically just Yorke accompanying himself such as Stupid Car and Thinking about you suddenly sound to me very similar to tracks off I do not want…).

  30. 60
    Billy Smart on 1 Nov 2010 #

    The first time that I became aware of Sinead O’Connor was when she appeared on a Colourfield B-side, ‘Monkey In Winter’, in 1987. Its fantastic, and the chill that her voice cast over Terry Hall’s glum and amusing song acted as a pretty good primer for what listeners could go on to expect from her.

    In the ensuing 23 years, I have never heard or seen anyone talk about this song. Does anyone else know it? Though I suppose that a B-side for a single taken from the second Colourfield album was about as inauspicious a place as possible for a performer to appear.

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