SINEAD O’CONNOR Universal Mother (Ensign)

Now that Jeff Buckley’s life-changingly wondrous "Grace" is receiving some (belated) acclaim, can I nominate this release as 1994’s best kept secret? The excellence of Sinead O’Connor’s fourth album was not a foregone conclusion, the lady being rather more famous for her politics and convictions rather than her music of late. But dust off your copy of "I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got" and remember that it wasn’t just that Prince cover and nine supporting tracks.

"Universal Mother" is almost the negative of that album’s battered optimism, even though it retains its humility by the bucketload. Opening with a few seconds of Germaine Greer discoursing on women replacing politics, suddenly a mammoth bassline arrived and we’re into "Fire On Babylon", a floorshaker which may or may not be about child abuse (you decide). Next up are a duo of interlinked paeans to her family, the self-explanatory "John I Love You" and "My Darling Child", followed by her young son Jake’s brief but painful "Am I A Human?". When you get to the cover of Nirvana’s "All Apologies", still shackled with it’s too-poignant-for-language "I’m married...buried", just Sinead and an acoustic guitar, the tension is unbearable. And you’re still only halfway through.

This album could not be said to be an easy listening - it makes a record such as Kristin Hersch’s equally sparse and minimal "Hips And Makers" sound like background muzak from your local Berni Inn. The pressure peaks in the penultimate track, ""Famine"", which welds Miles Davis samples, dialogue, the chorus from "Eleanor Rigby" and another titanic bassline to a half-rapped, half-spoken rant about the Irish potato famine. Irrespective of the accuracy of what she says (not being a historian I’m unable to comment!) the result is one of the most arresting, persuasive and disturbing pieces of music I’ve heard this, or any, year. Then comes the belatedly released single, "Thank You For Hearing Me". Which is the least we could do.

If these things matter, there’s excellent backup support from ex-Ant Marco Pirroni, Bomb The Bass supremo Tim Simenon, Matthew Seligman, Phil Coulter and the Irish Chamber Orchestra, but the lasting impression is of the woman’s cheek at bringing together such disparate strands of sadness and isolation, and amazement at the way she makes the whole work so well. If you’ve ever swooned over Sinead’s own "Feel So Different", or even Nick Drake’s "River Man", then this album is for you.