Two Things At Once – 001

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Can you listen to a familiar artist without evoking their previous work in your mind? Even if it is an artist you have not listened to in quite a while? Or maybe especially if it is an artist you have not heard in a while? These two recent releases forced me to confront this question.

The Cranberries and Sinead O’Connor have new CDs out. For the Cranberries, it is their first release since 2001; for O’Connor, it has been five years since her last studio album. In both cases however, it has been nearly twenty years since their respective heydays and, even further, I haven’t really listened to either closely since that period in the early Nineties. So, when I received them to review, I thought that, rather than try to place them in the context of each artists’ previous history, I would try to review them as if they were brand new; the first releases by a couple of unknown artists.

And I couldn’t do it.

The problem is that both albums sound too much like the artists' previous work. Now, in the case of O’Connor, I actually found this to be a plus; on How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?, she returns to her strengths. The Cranberries, however, don’t seem to have moved much at all.

Now, I have to admit that even back in the day, I was never a huge Cranberries fan. I primarily heard them through the radio, especially their big hit “Zombie,” but I am familiar with their sound, and I just hear more of it here. That is to say, the album is pleasant enough – ethereal vocals appear over occasionally edgy guitars – but it doesn’t really add anything to their catalog or, in a larger scope, to the musical landscape overall.

Don’t get me wrong. I would never begrudge an artist the pleasures of making music. Not every release has to “add something to the musical landscape.” So, if that is what is going on here, if they reunited for their own pleasure, more power to them. I just question whether anyone would pick this CD up for any reason beyond the band’s history.

Still, I kept listening for the song (or songs) which would change my mind; those which would sound fresh, exciting and new. They started to show up about halfway through. “Schizophrenic Playboys” is catchy and strong, “Waiting in Walthamstow” has a pleasant, haunting quality, and “Show Me” has a solid punch to it, but they all still sound mired in the early Nineties.

Conversely, I pretty much stopped listening to Sinead O’Connor after I Do Not Want What I Have Not Got. I loved The Lion and the Cobra, but the second album didn’t quite do it for me. The emotional power was still there, but the music lacked the punch of the first one. And then I just lost interest.

Lucky for me, after all the various transitions and experiments she has gone through, How About I Be Me (And You Be You)? picks up right where I Do Not Want What I Have Not Got left off (including the long title). O’Connor’s best music has always been built on a combination of emotional rawness, and just enough musical accompaniment to emphasize that emotion. She continues that here. Most of the songs are spare instrumentally, but can carry a punch when necessary, as on “Queen of Denmark.”

Her real strength has been her ability to combine the personal with the universal. Her lyrics can be cryptic, as she throws in details from her personal life, but even if she doesn’t give us the full story, she does provide the emotional context. That is, we may not know exactly what she is singing about, but we sure know how she feels about it. She accomplishes this as much with her voice as her words; she has one of the most powerful, emotional voices in all rock music, and she uses it to full effect here. This is especially evident on “Take Off You Shoes,” which never makes clear why she is angry, but we certainly feel it. Similarly, “Back Where You Belong” starts out with an anti-war message, then moves on to something much more personal, which, again, remains cryptic, yet still moving.

If there is a major difference between this and previous albums, it is that it sounds like she has, at least occasionally, made some level of peace with her world and her emotions. She even demonstrates a sense of humor at times. She kicks off the album with “4th and Vine,” a lighthearted ode to impending marriage. Other songs, such as ”Old Lady” and “The World is Getting Married,” continue this positive outlook on life, and especially love (although there does seem to be an underlying trace of cynicism about marriage). And “Queen of Denmark” reveals a sharp, if extremely scatological, sense of humor.

Of course, darker moods are also strong throughout. She quickly follows “4th and Vine” with “Reason With Me,” a harrowing tale of addiction. “I Had a Baby” explores the conflicts of being an unmarried mother. And the aforementioned “Take off Your Shoes” and “Queen of Denmark” show that she still carries a great degree of anger at certain people.

Sinead O’Connor has produced another powerful album, utilizing, again, the same strengths that made her first couple of albums so good. The Cranberries, on the other hand, have merely produced something pleasant and listenable, but without adding anything new.



Both Roses and How About I Be Me (And You Be You) are out now. Buy Roses here on Amazon and How About I Be Me (And You Be You) here on Amazon .

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