Welcome to the latest edition of ‘Golden Vault’, where we delve into the annals of music to bring you a classic album. You’ll know some like the back of your hand and nothing of others. We hope to get you reacquainted with old friends and create new favourites. The album to be taken out of the Golden Vault for reappraisal this week is 'Universal Mother' by Sinéad O'Connor.
Artistic indifference is certainly something Sinéad O’Connor can never be accused of. We have watched O’Connor emulate, discombobulate, self-destruct and reconstruct throughout the years. However, it is her knack for tearing down societal taboos that is her plenitude.
One may think that Ireland has emerged socially since the late '80s when O’Connor first appeared on Top Of The Pops bellowing Mandinka, shaved head in situ. Certainly, we have come a long way from bearing the shackles of shame and silence instilled by the clerical elite, yet certain aspects have remained largely sacrosanct; that of the role of women and motherhood within our society.
Released in 1994 ‘Universal Mother’ is an unflinching exploration of female identity and motherhood in all its tender and terrible glory.
A migration from her previous albums ‘The Lion And The Cobra’ & ‘I do Not Want What I have Not Got’, ‘Universal Mother’ is a classic to behold not only for its deeply personal lyrics but for its timeless relevance.
Initiating the album is Germaine Greer’s uncompromising take on gender politics, whereby she contends “The opposite to patriarchy is not matriarchy but fraternity”.
This leads us into the first track of the album, the powerful and indignant Fire On Babylon that eschews the traditional narrative of the nurturing mother but hallmarks a destructive and painful relationship between mother and child.
Reverberating base and percussion remain throughout as O’Connor’s voice triumphs like a war cry; “She's taken everything I liked, She's taken every lover oh, And all along she gave me lies, Just to make me think I loved her”.
The album takes a decidedly different shift in tone with the lilting John I Love You. Pure and softer vocals, along with melodic piano showcase the nurturing and protective sentiments of motherhood. On the track’s conclusion, O’Connor cannily replaces the title with “Child I love you”, alluding to understanding that motherhood can be both maternal and fraternal in nature.
My Darling Child and Am I Human continue along this vein. Both tracks are cooingly lullaby-esque in nature, if not a little self-indulgent. A little like a parent gushing with adoration over their new addition, much to the boredom of everyone else in company.
Before the listener falls asleep, the brilliant Red Football launches like a kick in the guts. An anthem for the reclamation of the female body that is both aching and riotous, O’Connor’s voice demands gravitas with hallowing words “My skin is not a football for you, My head is not a football for you. My body's not a football for you, My womb is not a football for you”.
Accompanied only by a barely strummed guitar, O’Connor’s cover of Nirvana’s All Apologies serves as a statement of head held high defiance. O’Connor will not apologise for her position nor imposition.
The inclusion of the heart-wrenchingly tender Scorn Not His Simplicity, masterfully composed by Phil Coulter, adds another layer to the album. Her voice lends a renewed intensity to Coulter’s lyrics as she articulates an aspect of parenting we don’t often hear about, the perspective of a parent whose child is born with special needs. “See him stare, Not recognizing the kind face, That only yesterday he loved, The loving face, Of a mother who can't understand what she's been guilty of".
In sharp relief to the menacing and sombre All Babies is the acapella In This Heart, a song with ebullient harmonies that are finely calibrated on versus such as “There are rays on the weather ,Soon these tears will have cried, All loneliness have died, My love, My love, My love”. Soothing and healing with lyrics abound with hope for a better future.
Famine is a clap-trap rap spoken word piece that borrows the chorus from The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby. O’Connor savages the belief that the Irish famine was inflicted on us by mother earth and takes aim at patriarchal power structures and their impact on modern Ireland “The highest statistics of child abuse in the EEC, And we say we're a Christian country” she sneers.
With impeccable manners the closing track Thank You is signature Sinéad O’Connor. Poignant, haunting and candid in its sincerity, the closing song is force of thanks for allowing a woman’s voice to be heard and joining her on the journey.
Radical and progressive, ‘Universal Mother’ is a uniquely Irish album delivered with gusto by a uniquely Irish voice. As relevant in 1994 as it is 24 years later, particularly on the 25th May 2018.