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Oct 10

SINEAD O’CONNOR – “Nothing Compares 2 U”

FT + Popular169 comments • 12,962 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. 61
    vinylscot on 1 Nov 2010 #

    Rory – thanks for bringing up “My Darling Child” – easily the nearest I’ve ever heard to an expression of unconditional love for a child. She just nails it – a simple melody, lyrics the child would understand, and a wonderful absence of self-consciousness. I still can’t listen to it without a tear in my eye – but I love it so much I can’t stop listening to it!

  2. 62
    MikeMCSG on 1 Nov 2010 #

    #58 Rory, be careful of taking that film too seriously. It was wildly exaggerated in parts; the bit where it’s implied that the old bird who dies has spent her whole life in the launderette is paricularly laughable.

  3. 63
    punctum on 1 Nov 2010 #

    #46: Don’t see why supposed “landmark” or “classic” number ones deserve special treatment. Otherwise Popular would just be a dreary by-the-book recital of Things We Already Know. “Rated by whim,” as it says on the top of the tin. Mind-changing on the part of music writers is underrated and underused, though.

    With all the talk of 1966 I’m surprised this hasn’t been cited yet in relation to “NC2U” – and this was never a hit here and not much of a hit in the States either (#11 R&B but only #64 on the Hot 100).

  4. 64
    Rory on 1 Nov 2010 #

    @59 A very good point about Sinead’s influence. She does sound now like the starting point for a lot of ’90s music.

    I’ve been enjoying listening to her non-album tracks in the past few days. The bonus tracks from the 2009 reissue of I Do Not Want make it sound like a worthwhile investment.

    @61 Absolutely — and following it with “Am I a Human” was genius. A very underrated album, that one (I even love “Famine”, Father Ted associations and all). I guess she lost a lot of her audience with Am I Not Your Girl, though. The sales figures across her career are sobering, and show the impact of the monster hit under discussion:

    2,500,000 (The Lion and the Cobra)
    7,000,000 (I Do Not Want…)
    1,500,000 (Am I Not Your Girl)
    1,500,000 (Universal Mother)
    250,000 (Gospel Oak)
    2,000,000 (So Far)
    1,000,000 (Faith and Courage)
    225,000 (Sean-Nos Nua)
    100,000 (She Who Dwells…)
    500,000 (Collaborations)
    250,000 (Throw Down Your Arms)
    375,000 (Theology)

    (From Wikipedia.)

    @62 Even if it’s half-accurate, that’s bad enough. Locking a girl up for being nothing more than a bit of a tearaway or a single mother, whether for 18 months or 18 years, is unconscionable.

    “It was worse in the Magdalenes, much worse than what you see. I don’t like to say it, but the film is soft on the nuns,” says McDonagh, who spent five years in one in Galway after being molested by a neighbour. She was spirited away early one morning by a priest and told she had “brought shame on her family”. McDonagh eventually escaped to England after she was farmed out as a servant to a cousin of one of the “holy nuns”, an expression she still uses without a hint of irony. Every other “Magdalene” I’ve talked to says the same: the reality was more brutal.Guardian.

    I did get a sense of joy from Sean-Nos Nua that was missing from O’Connor’s earlier work (other than the occasional track like “My Darling Child”). I hope it’s carried through the last decade; her first 10-15 years of recordings contain more than enough pain and rage for anyone.

  5. 65
    Alan not logged in on 1 Nov 2010 #

    I have to echo Kogan’s kneejerk response was very much in evidence with me at the time. This had all the hallmarks of ‘Now THIS is serious music kids, GROW UP’, and was immensely approved of by my mum’s generation (which I think aren’t far off Rosie’s cohort).

    I liked it and recall everyone wow-ing the video. but its marvels for me palled from massive overplaying. It remains a high water mark in vocal delivery, but I have studiously (and perhaps over pseudishly) tried to ignore that quality pretty much ever since about that point in time.

    It is of course SERIOUS MUSIC KIDS, and I have grown up, so yes it’s still grate, but I’d swap this 10 for the 9 that Orbison’s It’s Over got.

  6. 66
    rosie on 1 Nov 2010 #

    Marcello @ 63: Agreed here that that track is an absolute belter (in every sense). It’s certainly a staple of my collection and it was a mystery to me then and remains so now that it wasn’t a huge hit. A number of radio pundits including Tony Blackburn certainly had a go at getting it off the ground over a period of several years, but it just didn’t take.

    There’s no accounting for folk sometimes.

    Alan @ 65: I may well be of your mum’s cohort but that doesn’t mean I think exactly like all the rest of them! As you well know…

    The think I will concede to Sinéad is that she’s a terrific actor.

  7. 67
    vinylscot on 1 Nov 2010 #

    Yes Marcello,the Lorraine Ellison track is an absolute belter – I bought one the many re-issues in about 73, when I was 12, and remember I couldn’t get anyone of my own age to sit through it. It has suffered from some terrible cover versions in its time, Bette Midler, David Essex, The Walker Brothers (sorry Scott) and the receptionist out of “Casualty” spring to mind.

  8. 68
    wichita lineman on 1 Nov 2010 #

    Re 66: Well, yes, and again acting isn’t necessarily a bad thing in pop at all. But someone earlier suggested that all performers are “attention seeking” (which is how NC2U strikes me). Stack it alongside the immense sadness and delicate tragedy Unfinished Symphony – that really feels like you’ve walked into someone’s “private armageddon” (Tom’s description of It’s Over). This, with video or not, has a “hear my pain” quality which grates on me. Am I being too English?

    Now, I’m not being contrarian but Stay With Me Baby has never quite done it for me either. Which is nuts, it should tick so many of my boxes. Partly it might be a knee-jerk reaction to being told it’s a “lost classic” on so many occasions since the 70s. But my suspicion is that writer Jerry Ragavoy was consciously setting out to write The Great Soul Record, his own River Deep Mountain High after he already had humdingers like Garnet Mimms’ Cry Baby and Time Is On My Side already on his cv. I think the sweatstains show.

  9. 69
    wichita lineman on 1 Nov 2010 #

    Unfinished Sympathy, that is.

  10. 70
    LondonLee on 1 Nov 2010 #

    #55: “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.”

    But that’s like saying Picasso would have been a greater artist if he’d had access to a video camera. He would have been a different artist but not necessarily a better one.

    Destination Moon wins for me just because of that lovely rocket. One of the enduring icons of my childhood that is (and now my own daughter loves it and has a toy model that looks just like it)

  11. 71
    pink champale on 1 Nov 2010 #

    @7 apparently the reason for all the cutaways to churchyards etc is that this footage was originally intended to form the bulk of the video and be worked into more of a narrative, with the sinead close-ups being used only occasionally, but of course they then realised that the face footage was video gold. the influence on radiohead suggested up thread certainly extended to the video for ‘no surprises’!

    The last couple of times I’ve seen the fall (probably now a couple of line-ups ago) they’ve opened with a piece of video art that takes a couple of seconds from various “”””iconic””””” pop performances including nc2U and loops them endlessly, gradually morphing one into the other (this is a *really* bad description). I don’t know who it was by, or quite what to make of it, but it was certainly memorable (or just eric pryndz for highbrows, i suppose). anyone else know anything about this?

  12. 72
    Kat but logged out innit on 1 Nov 2010 #

    @71 A few years ago at the Croydon Cartoon they did it with the Elvis Las Vegas footage & Freddie Mercury at Live Aid, both of them jerking back and forth like they couldn’t remember whether they’d left the gas on or not. It was kind of rubbish.

  13. 73
    pink champale on 1 Nov 2010 #

    yeah, that’ll be it. for your kind of rubbish, I’ll give you my kind of alright.

  14. 74
    vinylscot on 1 Nov 2010 #

    The Fall intro piece I saw around 3-4 years ago had a lot of Elvis and the Eurythmics in it, but I never found out what the music was. It was brilliant for about fiveminutes, but went on for around twenty……

  15. 75
    Kat but logged out innit on 1 Nov 2010 #

    Agreed – would have been fine as a short thing but I was quite drunk at the time and I have a short attention span :)

  16. 76
    ciaran 10 on 1 Nov 2010 #

    Oh where to begin with this one.

    First of all just happy to know we have the “bad dream” like end of 1989/early 1990 behind us.I mean 2 songs since may 89 you could class as good.

    What a record to get the ball rolling.

    For the 8 year old me in 1990 this was a real shock to the system.One thing you could always depend on from pop music was the element of enjoyment and fun about the process no matter how good or bad the songs may be and obviously the dance boom of this time was an example of this.

    NC2U was serious from the word go and as a result i wasnt keen on the record or the image but it was hard to get away from it.Was played a lot on the irish tv/radio stations but being so young i didnt know anyone who liked it.Even people slightly older were not big fans of it as far as im aware.

    Listening to it 20 years later i can appreciate its brilliance but more so than any other song the video for this has always left me with a lump in the throat and find it hard to separate it.Then again if it wasnt for the impact of the video it would have been lucky to make the top 20 i reckon.

    Maybe if i had known the torment that went into the song i would have reacted better to it.

    I like it a lot but i couldnt stretch to 10 (high 9 for me) because there are so many better singles that stalled at the 8/9 mark that i enjoy more..The lyrics are great but the tune itself is a bit one paced and doesnt change much so it holds it back from 10 status for me.But its still good to see it get the top mark all the same.

    As regards sinead o connor i have always been an admirer.I dont think Ireland has ever really claimed her as ours as much as u2 or the pogues.SOC has always been more universal than anything we have here even enya maybe.Back in the early 90s after her religious outburst on american tv she would have been more of a figure to avoid mentioning on irish tv mainly due to ireland being under the control of the catholic church.Although by the time she appeared on the late late show stating she would like to have been a priest in 1999 the churchs influence in ireland was on the wane after a series of scandals so it didnt have the same impact as the 1992 controversy.

    Having been brought up by church going parents i was aware of the impact the church had but i was fortunate not to experience the horrors that some children suffered in ireland 10-20 years before me.if one good thing came of sinead o connor it was at least she was willing to have a say when so many others couldnt speak out.

    I listened to the IDNWWIHG album recently and i do think its good.The last day of our acquaintance being a particular highlight.Also i know it went under the radar in the uk but i would highly recommend 2000’s faith and courage album especially the song “jealous” which is a kind of NC2U for the new millenium.Considering there was so much dire songs in the charts it was a relief to have somethink like jealous to fall back on.

    definintly will have a popular like conference next time im in the pub to see peoples reaction to this.i asked a dj to play this over the weekend but he didnt have it.

    Glad thats off my chest.Roll on to the next batch.

  17. 77
    Steve Mannion on 1 Nov 2010 #

    I see this song made a huge leap from 30 to 3 in its second week on the charts. That seems like quite an indication of how arresting the record was for many people. Another chart-topping ballad later in the year makes a slightly smaller but still mighty leap, but that had film soundtrack status.

    Big ballads from relative unknowns had more of a habit of doing this than anything else it seems – I wonder if its because they’re so suited for daytime radio they would get a huge boost once radio controllers saw they were safe enough to focus more on, having already charted on standard airplay and promotional buzz.

    We’ve also get one of the biggest jumps from a first week entry to the top spot between ‘Happy Talk’ (tho nowhere near that record’s ascent from 33 to 1) and the downloads era coming up.

  18. 78
    Lex on 1 Nov 2010 #

    #68 – my first reaction is yes, absolutely, you’re being too English there; “hear my pain” doesn’t strike me as a false way of conveying emotion, but actually a psychologically natural reaction to what the song describes. It’s situated firmly in public – in restaurants, at the doctor’s, in quotidian life, with everyone throwing their two cents in – and it’s a pitch-perfect reflection of that emotional state where everything has to be normal on the surface but you just want to howl and yell in everyone’s faces. Which is what Sinéad does, really – if I had to pick a word to describe what she does, what she’s best at, it’d be defiance – in the face of the oppressive social mores she grew up with, the abuse she suffered, the institution of the Catholic Church, against people who find her insufferable for all the above – and here, she’s defiant in the sense that the song is a demand to let her feel her pain, for her heartbreak to be acknowledged, not glossed over.

    Which isn’t to say I don’t appreciate the equally effective “numbed” vocal approach to conveying pain, but Sinéad’s hear-my-pain strategy seems appropriate here. And I find genuine catharsis a really valuable tradition in music, and it’s even more effective in the public space of the pop charts.

    As for “Unfinished Sympathy” – I don’t know, there’s heartbreak and sadness there for sure, but it’s always struck me as a fundamentally hopeful song – Nelson demands that we hear her pain, but she also sounds like she’s finding redemption somewhere else (in the music, on the dancefloor). “And now I’ve got to know much more” sounds like a new start, not the closing chapter.

  19. 79
    El boludo on 4 Nov 2010 #

    Breaking the net habit of a lifetime and de-lurking for this one – this is where I come in! I would have been about 5 at the time (“Easy Lover” is my stork-tune fwiw) but this is the first song I’m conscious of having heard at the time, although “Back 2 Life” and “Orinoco Flow” both feature heavily in my childhood as tapes my parents would play in the car.

    Haven’t got much interesting to say about NC2U but just wanted to say *something* as the next couple of decades are “my” Popular. It would be a few years before I’d develop into a full-scale pop obsessive, but I’m looking forward to discussing the 90s, especially with those people for whom The Music Died sometime before I was born ;-)

  20. 80
    Rory on 5 Nov 2010 #

    Welcome aboard, El boludo. Looking forward to your comments on the ’90s — my own will be a bit sporadic.

  21. 81
    Erithian on 5 Nov 2010 #

    Seconded – the greater the age range on here the better!

  22. 82
    Andy M on 5 Nov 2010 #

    @74 – His name is Safy Sniper. Vaguely interesting the 1st time you see it, less interesting the 20th. MES puts him on every time now mainly just to wind everybody up before he wanders onstage around midnight.

  23. 83
    pink champale on 8 Nov 2010 #

    thinking firmly within the box, old face-ache himself, aiden grimshaw did a typically funereal version of NC2U on saturday’s x factor, no doubt in direct response to the challenge upthread. i’m starting to find him quite endearing as a person but dear god his performances are a trial.

  24. 84
    Lex on 8 Nov 2010 #

    @83 Weird, that’s exactly my reaction to him! I don’t like his performances, I think he’s a really poor singer under all the panto-emo mannerisms, Cher’s astonishing take on “Stay” really showed up Aiden’s ~intensity~ for the gimmick it is, and taking on a song that’s already as dark as “Nothing Compares 2 U” removed even the “different interpretation” aspect of what he does.

    And yet I’m really warming up to him as a person and couldn’t be further from hating him – I save my antipathy for Wand Erection, Katie and Matt Fucking Cardle, who is the absolute WORST. (Also the judges, all of whom I probably dislike more than any contestant, especially after their RACISM of last night.)

  25. 85
    pink champale on 8 Nov 2010 #

    what, the wtf lenny henry thing, or the sending treyc home (with added no !!DEADLOCK!! conspiracy flavourings) thing? have to say, i think that was the right decision. for all that katie is deeply, deeply annoying, there is something quite interesting about her and i want to watch her performances (‘don’t speak’ was dead dull, admittedly). whereas, even treyc has got a very good voice and seems really nice (plus brumminess gets bonus points from me) but i’ve never been in the slightest bit interested in anything she’s done. basically, she offers competence which is not something i generally attach all that much importance to in pop. (also, if you’re a judge you’re going to be conscious that katie with her wide circle of haterz gets the programme in the papers and treyc doesn’t).

  26. 86
    Lex on 8 Nov 2010 #

    The Lenny Henry thing was just completely bizarre, Louis is genuinely losing the plot. It’s quite worrying. No, the Treyc thing; I admire Treyc’s competence (certainly over Katie’s weak lite-lite-lite-jazz breathiness) and though I don’t think she’s a contender to win, I think she hasn’t been allowed to shine because of really boring song choices (Cheryl is such a useless mentor). She certainly has more potential to deliver a showstopper, and doesn’t have any LESS personality than, say, Alexandra Burke.

    Also, there’s no justification that I can see for sending Treyc home over Katie…Katie SAT DOWN, SAD “SOD IT” AND GAVE UP in her sing-off! If that isn’t an automatic losing move what the hell is?

  27. 87
    swanstep on 8 Nov 2010 #

    Lex, pink champ. In the light of your discussion I checked out the Aidan and Cher clips on youtube… and, eek, Aid’s NC2U was indeed unconvincing, and I agree that Cher’s Stay was near-ideal/optimal. I watched her Just be Good to Me last week and couldn’t really see what the judges were raving about (although her backgrounder stuff made her seem interesting), but with Stay background become foreground and she looked/sounded every inch a pop-star.

  28. 88
    swanstep on 8 Nov 2010 #

    BTW, I’m confused by Cheryl Cole’s accent: she sounds Irish to me, but she’s from Newcastle right? Those two accents are normally completely different, so what am I hearing?

  29. 89
    El boludo on 9 Nov 2010 #

    Haha I knew when I came on here you would be talking about that performance! God, it was dre. Lex @84 I agree with pretty much all of that! Cher FTW! one dimension, curdle and katie are my hates too. Obviously there’s no FAIR justification for choosing Katie over Trayc ~ I tried to imagine the kind of records Katie would put out as a recording artist and it made me want to punch my imagination.

    I don’t think it was racism so much as a combination of cynicism & cowardice ~ basically I agree with PC’s last sentence @85.

    find x factor hard to watch tho as it’s like 5hrs long & kinda boring & yeah, the judges are horrible. but maybe we should save that for a future edition of Popular, years from now when all this has been long forgotten…

  30. 90
    El boludo on 9 Nov 2010 #

    gah dre = dire

    Painstakingly typing all this on a kindle (not recommended but faute de mieux)

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