Throughout her every transformation, be it musical or visual, Sinéad O’Connor has remained instantly recognisable – irreducibly herself. Wrapped in a black PVC mini-dress and sporting a bobbed wig on the cover of her last album, I’m Not Bossy, I’m The Boss (a long-ago 2014), the Irish singer was still identifiable as the shaven-headed young woman from the all-conquering Nothing Compares 2 U video, and as the pop star who tore up a picture of the pope on live US television in 1992.
A few days after her 53rd birthday, taking the stage on the only mainland UK date of her current tour, O’Connor is barefoot, clad in a black abaya with a subtle geometric check, and wearing a hijab – still unmistakable, despite a change in religion, two changes of name, some assertions of non-binary sexuality and a three-and-a-half-year process of regaining good mental health. Just as the Cassandra of Greek myth was doomed to tell the truth and not be believed, O’Connor’s 1992 declarations about abuse in the Catholic church are now a very public scandal.
She is undergoing an act of renewal. Last year, she released a demo of new music under the name Magda Arjuna Davitt, expressing a desire to rid herself of her “patriarchal slave name” and “parental curses”. Now she goes by the name Shuhada Sadaqat (Shuhada is an Arabic girl’s name; sadaqat refers to a voluntary sign of faith).
Even more striking than her shape-shifting constancy, perhaps, is the unwavering quality of her voice, which remains imbued with moral authority and the kind of tell-tale timbre that requires nanoseconds to recognise.
When O’Connor – she continues to use this name for work – opens her mouth tonight to sing Queen of Denmark, a John Grant song that she has made her own, her voice still goes from nought-to-righteous ire in one breath. “Why don’t you take it out on somebody else?” she hollers, to wild hoots of approval.
Throughout this often mesmerising gig, O’Connor is a picture of restraint – under-singing not because she has to, but because she is a master stylist. She still hits plenty of high notes, but she does it when it suits her. Also wonderfully unchanged is the way O’Connor emphatically yanks her chin to one side on a crescendo, as though the full blare of her voice might overpower the microphone.
This tour – which goes by the gnomic name 786 – began with rave reviews in Ireland; it is set to continue, in bursts, well into 2020 as O’Connor comes back into the world. Her timing has a little kismet about it. Uncompromising young women are no longer universally vilified, as O’Connor was in the 90s. For all the abuse Greta Thunberg receives, her message – and its unsmiling delivery – resonates widely.
Most of O’Connor’s compositions are love songs, but her political songs are now, once again, very relevant. Last summer, the US guitarist Sharon Van Etten revived one of O’Connor’s old tunes, Black Boys on Mopeds. O’Connor’s version goes down very well tonight. “These are dangerous days,” it goes (it’s set in the Thatcher era), and there are howls from the crowd, many of whom remember the last stretch of Tory hegemony first-hand.
Perhaps most germane to the present moment is O’Connor’s very open, public and ongoing conversation about her physical and mental health. In 2017, she told a US television talk show that a hysterectomy in 2015 plunged her into full menopause, and O’Connor cites the lack of hormone replacement therapy post-op as contributing to a suicide attempt.
That same year, the singer posted a distressed – and distressing – video from a New Jersey motel room. In the months that followed, she received in-patient therapy. She told the Irish broadcaster Dave Fanning last June that “if I hadn’t been in hospital for three and a half years… I wouldn’t be alive to sit here talking”. She described therapeutic work undertaken on the trauma she sustained in childhood (her mother was a violent alcoholic who died when O’Connor was 18) and the difficulty doctors had in arriving at her precise diagnosis.
Anyone following O’Connor’s Twitter account lately will know she recently gave up smoking, broke a lumbar vertebra and is now selling her motorbike as a result. Happily, she is now also “officially 99.999999% debt-free”. There is new management – two of her former bandmates – and a memoir with a US publisher set to come out sometime after the US election, written in the style of a blog. There is talk also of not one, but two new albums. One looks set to be cover versions; the other might be called No Mud No Lotus, after the Buddhist idea that something of value comes out of suffering. Or it might be called AKA, given the frequent name changes.
Although every song O’Connor serves up tonight emphatically has something to say, there are times when you do question the medium in which they are delivered. It is high time O’Connor made a record that didn’t have the foursquare thump of pop-rock at its heart – her voice and her writing deserve something braver, more beautiful.
Backing her on this tour is a perfectly fine band of players – beanpole electric guitarist Phil Edgar and sweet-voiced acoustic guitarist Jackie Rainey combine to sing harmonies with O’Connor on In This Heart – but the plodding metre feels dated, especially given the endless artistic possibilities of O’Connor’s transcendental voice.
Harbour, from 2014, shows what she can do with a faintly jazzy blues. When she performs a cappella, however, time stands still. I Am Stretched on Your Grave is a traditional song O’Connor recorded for I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got (1990). Tonight’s version raises the hairs on your gooseflesh, with O’Connor’s spectral voice soaring, and her intonation suggesting everything from traditional Celtic music to Arabic devotionals.
In 2015, O’Connor retired Nothing Compares 2 U from her live repertoire, saying she didn’t emotionally relate to the song any more. It’s back, with new melismas and missing absolutely none of its heartbroken power. Even more shivery, however, is the moment in the encore, when O’Connor starts her newest song, Milestones, without accompaniment and with the microphone switched off. Gradually, her voice rises and the amplification is turned back on. “Evil is not my true nature,” she sings. For a few pregnant seconds, this busy venue is in rapt silence.