Sinead O’Connor – The Lion and the Cobra

by Matt J. Popham

(Originally Posted: March 17, 2014)

Most people started paying attention to Sinead O’Connor circa 1990. The video for her Prince-penned smash single “Nothing Compares 2 U” became a ubiquitous presence on MTV (back when having your video in rotation ad nauseum was a sign of cultural relevance), and hordes of the hypnotized rushed out to buy the album from whence it came, “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got” (back when people still rushed out to buy albums). At seven million copies worldwide, it remains her bestselling record to date. In the years since, O’Connor’s uncompromising opinions, confrontational style, and other such badges of artistic integrity have cost her many of those fans, leaving only an ardent million to purchase her several or so subsequent releases, right up to 2012’s scorching and stellar “How About I Be Me (and You Be You).” But in the waxing and waning of all the hype and hysteria since she caught the world’s attention, too few ears have been turned towards O’Connor’s acclaimed 1987 debut, “The Lion and the Cobra.” To this day, I am surprised by how many people – even avowed fans – I encounter who are unaware that this album exists or, worse, give it dismissive short shrift. Of all the injustices Sinead O’Connor has had to endure in her long career, this may be the most unforgivable and obscene…

Like everyone else, I discovered Sinead in 1990 (or, rather, I discovered Sinead when my sister discovered her in 1990), but it wasn’t her multi-platinum sophomore effort that made an impact. The popularity of “Nothing Compares 2 U” had, in fact, caused me to regard her as little more than another trite pop songstress with a manufactured, attention-grabbing image. It took less than two songs from her first album to thoroughly incinerate that notion. It’s hard to describe exactly how I felt the first time I played “The Lion and the Cobra” all the way through, but if it’s possible to describe the sensation of a white-hot dagger slowly penetrating my soul, only in a positive way, that would be it. At the time, I was in an exclusive relationship with all manner of loud, testosterone-heavy, aggressive rock (perhaps with a bit of classical or jazz on the side to show-off my musical sophistication), largely because it provided the ideal outlet for my adolescent angst. But just in the course of the “The Lion and the Cobra’s” opening ballad, “Jackie,” O’Connor’s voice, building from haunting beauty, to defiant rage, to anguished commitment, reached heights of emotional power and intensity, the likes of which I had never – even in all my punk/metal peregrinations – encountered. It remains one of the only songs I know of that can flood my eyes with tears merely by my THINKING about it…

What I forget – what I ALWAYS forget – about the album is how spare, how electronic, how 80’s the whole thing is. Full of danceable beats, synth-y accompaniments (Is that really a Casio SK-1 I hear in “Never Get Old”…?), and light, airy guitars whose maximum muscularity is about on par with your average New Wave outfit, it’s always something of a shock to put it on and realize how atypical it is among my all-time favorites. But then she sings… O’Connor has one of the rarest of voices: confident, clear, clean, and most importantly, strong enough and passionate enough to seemingly bend any musical accompaniment to her fiery will. And in that way, the mild, minimal musicianship of “The Lion and the Cobra” becomes one of its strengths, accentuating the searing vocal iron with which she brands all of her songs. The jangly dance-pop of “Mandinka” erupts into a raging declaration of self, the lyrical dreamscape of “Jerusalem” burns with the fury of sincerest threat, and the mournful “Drink Before the War” escalates into a scathing, apocalyptic condemnation. Even the accessible, danceclub come-on of “I Want Your (Hands on Me)” seems to throb, not only with the expected lust, but an aching, pleading desperation for simple human contact. And after so many tidal waves of passion, the album’s soft and simple closer “Just Call Me Joe” seems less like a delicate request, than a lone whisper in the aftermath of Armageddon.

On St. Patrick’s Day, it might seem more fitting to extoll the virtues of “Sean Nos Nua,” O’Connor’s 2002 collection of traditional Irish folksongs and ballads; and that album is, inarguably, worthy of superlative praise. But “The Lion and the Cobra” still remains my favorite of her impressive catalog, perhaps all-the-more because I feel it is so often forgotten. A pitch-perfect debut, an arresting announcement of artistic arrival, it remains, even today, as fierce and unflinching as its Biblical title suggests. O’Connor might be Ireland’s musical answer to Joan of Arc, but if you’re looking for something unforgettably cathartic to accompany your pints and whiskeys on this fine St. Patrick’s Day, “The Lion and the Cobra” is sure to drive the snakes from your soul…

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