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The Boston Phoenix Sister Act

Sinead O'Connor's return to form

By Lois Maffeo

JULY 17, 2000:  "There is a universe inside me," sings Sinéad O'Connor in the opening lines of her new Faith and Courage (Atlantic). And, boy, she is not kidding. Ireland's wild child, feminist, Rastafarian, and Catholic priest is at it again, and this time she nails her mark on an album that illuminates the opposing forces at work in this fascinating artist. With songwriting and production help from sources as diverse as Jah Wobble and Destiny's Child producer Kevin "She'kspere" Briggs, O'Connor returns to form after nearly a decade of half-hearted music and egregious psycho-political posturing, and the result bears a welcome resemblance to her last fully articulated album, 1990's I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got (Ensign/Chrysalis).

Faith and Courage gives us a Sinéad O'Connor who doesn't shrink from exposing the paradoxes of her complex universe. In its rediscovery of spirituality (O'Connor was ordained to the priesthood last year by a radical Catholic sect), the album is a kind of gospel for unorthodox souls who might veer, as O'Connor does, from sin to salvation in the space of a single song. It's a memoir of her turbulent youth, and the tale of her return to the faith that initiated her rebellion.

Although the holy orders of Mother Bernadette Mary (O'Connor's priest name) are not officially recognized by Rome, the singer insists that she is a Catholic priest, and qualified to officiate over the sacraments of the church. The woman who tore up the pope's photograph during a 1992 Saturday Night Live performance admits in "The Lamb's Book of Life" that "I know I have done many things/To give you reason not to listen to me/Especially as I have been so angry." But the Catholic O'Connor is not the only visible character here. By dedicating the work to "all Rastafari people," she also addresses the inspiration she's drawn from a faith that departs from Catholicism in most spiritual matters. And in the album-closing "Kyrie Eleison," she combines the traditional invocation of the Mass with shout-outs to "merciful Jah" and makes it all sound utterly natural. In O'Connor's spiritual world, the Lamb of God and the Lion of Judah walk hand in hand.

Faith and Courage also represents the views of a committed feminist -- many of the album's songs (minus their slick production) would seem right at home on a 1991 riot grrrl LP. "Daddy, I'm Fine" sketches the tumultuous period of O'Connor's youth that preceded her incendiary debut, The Lion and the Cobra. With loping guitars that shatter into a punk shout, she recalls how she defied her father, quit school, and moved to London to take her chances in the music industry. Followers of the varying announcements regarding her sexuality will be interested in "Emma's Song" (an ode to a former lover that's the lone moment of eroticism here) as well as in the album's first single, "No Man's Woman," which proclaims the singer's intent to remain uncontrolled by the men in her life. She does make one exception: "I've got a lovin' man/But he's a spirit," she sings without a shred of irony.

For all that O'Connor's moods and meanings dominate Faith and Courage, she has a number of collaborators. Credit former Eurythmic Dave Stewart with the seductive arrangement of "Jealous" (a sultry ballad in the mood of 10cc's "I'm Not in Love") and the delicate " 'Til I Whisper U Something," where swirling Irish pipes and regal strings emphasize the melancholic lyrics. Songwriting help also arrives from the Fugees' Wyclef Jean and Ednaswap's Scott Cutler and Anne Preven. But in the end it's O'Connor's universe that gets mapped on this honest, gutsy album. Never underestimate the power of a woman -- especially one motivated by faith and courage.

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