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Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2002



Sinead O'Connor: "Sean-Nos Nua"

Though she's done the occasional traditional Irish song as a guest on other people's records, Sinead O'Connor has never explored her country's musical heritage in depth. Now, after more than 10 years of trying to express her adolescent earth-mother iconoclasm, she gives up and goes the trad route with "Sean-Nos Nua," the best album she's ever made. Some credit should go to the producers, trad maven Donal Lunny and dub evangelist Adrian Sherwood. Both are sensitive to O'Connor's singular appeal, and they generally swap the genre's typical instrumentation for simple arrangements that sometimes border on the ambient (the title means "new old-style"). If you want jigs, look elsewhere.

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When mired in the mysto-crypto hooey that gummed up her last two albums, O'Connor's self-dramatizing can be unbearable. But as she points out in the liner notes, these old songs are about "the beautifully borne pain of real people, who really existed." Dramatizing the pain and joy of others suits her style immeasurably. Her whispered, treated vocals on "Lord Franklin" convey not only the dashed hopes of the narrator, a woman searching for her missing husband, but the vast expanse of sea that she has to cross during that search.

Even on songs you think you know inside-out, O'Connor gives you something else to consider. The usually raucous "I'll Tell Me Ma" is done as a children's skipping song, which is how she learned it as a girl in Dublin. Her hoarse, declamatory style on the reggae-inflected "Oro, Se Do Bheatha Bhaile" emphasizes the song's "female warrior spirit" more clearly than conventional versions. And her reading of the "cockles and mussels" chorus on the tragic "Molly Malone" may have more naked pathos than you can stand.

But it's on "The Singing Bird," an impressionistic standard that O'Connor treats as "a prayer to Jah," that she truly transcends the trad label. "There's none of them can sing so sweet/My singing bird as you," she warbles with barely contained ecstasy, making the irrefutable case that singing is as close as anyone gets to God in this life.

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