It’s been easy to dismiss Sinéad O’Connor as a kook, a volatile artist who seemed hell bent on career self-destruction by refusing to have the American national anthem played before her U.S. concerts and ripping up Pope John Paul II’s photo on Saturday Night Live. The backlash was swift and severe. The outspoken Irish-born singer suffered a nervous breakdown, attempted suicide and announced her retirement from the music business—several times. Last year, O’Connor took out a full-page ad in the Irish Examiner newspaper, pleading with her critics to be left alone. “I have been the whipping post of Ireland’s media for 20 years,” she wrote in the 2,000-word open letter. “If ye all think I am such a crazy person, why do you bother writing about me at all?”
Far from crazy, the gifted O’Connor is a revolutionary artist who has transformed the cultural landscape. Her voice, an instrument of beauty and searing honesty, is a wonder to behold. And her image—shaven head and shapeless wardrobe—has had a profound effect on femininity and sexuality in pop music. Now O’Connor has released an album as challenging as one would expect from an uncompromising artist. Recorded in Jamaica with the legendary rhythm section/production duo Sly & Robbie (a.k.a. drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare), Throw Down Your Arms is a superb collection that avoids well-known reggae hits in favor of more obscure roots numbers by Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and others.
O’Connor’s voice rings out in all its righteous glory on faithful renditions of Burning Spear’s “Jah Nuh Dead” and “He Prayed,” The Abyssinians’ “Y Mas Gan,” Israel Vibration’s “Prophet Has Arise” and Lee “Scratch” Perry’s “Vampire.” She also covers Tosh’s “Downpressor Man” and Marley’s “War,” the same song she stunned audiences with on SNL. There’s a strong spiritual emphasis to the album, which O’Connor sees as a natural followup to Sean-Nos Nua, her 2002 collection of traditional Irish songs. “I consider myself to be a Rastafarian and have for years,” she says from her home in Dublin, “and these songs have saved my ass.” Added O’Connor, who has three children aged 18, nine and one: “I’ve wanted to make this album for a long time. Recently, I got a nanny and was finally able to do it.”
Arriving alone into Kingston was a little intimidating, she admits. Jamaica has a reputation as a chauvinistic society. As well, she hadn’t sung in three years and here she was tackling classic songs of the Rastafarian faith. “Traditionally, in Jamaica, women only sing love songs,” says O’Connor, “so it was quite something for a little woman—let alone an Irish one—to sing these big-man, warrior-type songs. It helped that I was already known within the Rasta community because of the Pope business. On Saturday Night Live , I tied a Rastafarian prayer cloth to the microphone and publicly identified myself with Rastafarianism. Ever since, Rastas have referred to me as their sister.”
Having left the old Sinéad O’Connor behind, the “reborn” O’Connor will begin a concert tour in November with Sly and Robbie, performing strictly Rasta songs and just two songs from her back catalogue: “Thank You for Hearing Me” from 1994’s Universal Mother and “The Healing Room” from 2000’s Faith and Courage. “I’m trying to do a Mahalia Jackson,” she says, referring to the gospel singer who gained legendary status with a pure, sanctified style. “A transformation has taken place with me,” adds O’Connor, who is already working on her next album, Theology, a collection of acoustic spiritual songs. “Once that has happened, you can’t step backwards.”