SINEAD OCONNOR Universal Mother (Ensign)
Now that Jeff Buckleys life-changingly wondrous "Grace" is receiving some (belated) acclaim, can I nominate this release as 1994s best kept secret? The excellence of Sinead OConnors 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 Havent Got" and remember that it wasnt just that Prince cover and nine supporting tracks.
"Universal Mother" is almost the negative of that albums 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 were 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 Jakes brief but painful "Am I A Human?". When you get to the cover of Nirvanas "All Apologies", still shackled with its too-poignant-for-language "Im married...buried", just Sinead and an acoustic guitar, the tension is unbearable. And youre still only halfway through.
This album could not be said to be an easy listening - it makes a record such as Kristin Herschs 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 Im unable to comment!) the result is one of the most arresting, persuasive and disturbing pieces of music Ive 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, theres 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 womans cheek at bringing together such disparate strands of sadness and isolation, and amazement at the way she makes the whole work so well. If youve ever swooned over Sineads own "Feel So Different", or even Nick Drakes "River Man", then this album is for you.