Perhaps it had to happen. If Pat Boone could cut a heavy metal
album, a platter of Sinead O'Connor hymns couldn't be far behind. But no, Sinead hasn't converted to Christian Rock. The 30-year-old Irish Catholic-cum-Buddhist's new six-song EP of original spirituals points rather toward a vague pagan pantheism, with no ready answers, but a doggedconviction that things will somehow turn out for the best.
"Gospel Oak," O'Connor's first release since 1994's "Universal Mother," is more consistent than her recent endeavors -- the baffling collection of too-big-band versions of white-guy standards, "Am I Not Your Girl," and the odd jumble of the redemptive and the irredeemable on "Universal Mother." In fact, it's almost too consistent.
Three consecutive tracks are chants thinly disguised as pop songs. Each line of "I Am Enough for Myself" follows the same chord progression as the last, trudging along, unchanging, a steady mantra of self-sufficiency. But then "Petit Poulet" (that's "Little Chicken" to you) begins, and it's exactly the same -- the tempo picks up soon enough, but it maintains that circular lack of progress. A franglais lullaby for Rwanda ("Maintenant bebe/Tout sans, c'est OK"), the latter
song is much more interesting than the former. It contains some lovely images: "The sun's still in the sky/The moon is there at night/The ground is still underfoot/And still holds you." What's more, it has some impressive accordion and African-style guitar action going during the doo-doo-doo chorus.
The Irish republican love song "4 My Love" breaks the musical monotone with military snare drum rolls, but it's sung in a harmony-duet-with-self drone that maintains the trance.
Lest we bliss out entirely, we are granted a couple of gorgeous non-chants -- the healing oath "This Is to Mother You" and "This IS a Rebel Song," a plea to an unresponsive lover -- which, truth to tell, also sound a lot alike musically, both sung in Sinead's dulcet, hypnotic half-whisper. As a chaser, the EP includes an elegant, pared-down live
recording of the traditional Irish folk song "He Moved Through the Fair," which she previously recorded with the Chieftains on their 1995 album "The Long Black Veil." On this subdued new version, the keyboard and guitar accompaniment is merely a low murmur in the background as O'Connor's acrobatic alto milks the hoary lay for all it's worth.
The songs as a whole are very pretty, but lack the catharsis found in "Troy," "Nothing Compares 2 U" or even "Red Football." "Gospel Oak" may be spreading a sort of holistic good news, but it is not what we usually think of as gospel music. Gospel is born of joy, and while O'Connor may have gotten past some of the anger, hurt and sadness that pervaded her previous albums, joy is still foreign territory -- what Sinead offers instead is a somewhat harried hope.
Great spirituals have sprung out of such fortitude
of soul for as long as anyone can remember, but hope-rock tends to lead one down the slippery slope into the shadowy valley of lite radio fare. Emotional instability may be the heart of rock 'n' roll -- but if that's so, maybe we're better off with Enya or Yanni, a sobering thought indeed. I'm happy for Sinead's sake that she's got her Myoho-renge-kyo in motion, but musically I miss the howling.