Expressions of immediate outrage and raw emotion are rarely polished or articulate, and that in-the-moment, impulsive messiness makes some passages of Sinéad O’Connor’s How About I Be Me (And You Be You) an awkward listen. The singer’s candor and vulnerability have long been signature elements of her music, and that’s certainly true here. But while there’s value in the urgency of the emotions O’Connor confronts over the course of the album’s brief song cycle, the inconsistencies in the quality of her songwriting keep the set from being as powerful as her earlier work.
O’Connor’s best music channels both the power of her inimitable wail and the righteousness of her personal and political convictions into songs that, while uncompromising and confrontational, remain mindful of the conventions of pop music. Unfortunately, O’Connor completely misses at least one component of that formula on tracks like “V.I.P.,” which plays as more of a never-ending lecture than a proper song, and a cover of John Grant’s laughably over-the-top, juvenile “Queen of Denmark.” The songs that show even the slightest bit more attention to craft, such as “Back Where You Belong” and the simply extraordinary “The Wolf Is Getting Married,” make the album’s missteps all the more glaring.
Particularly jarring are O’Connor’s use of dated or downright antiquated phrases and embarrassing rhyme schemes. On the ebullient opener, “4th and Vine,” O’Connor and producer John Reynolds perfectly structure the song’s hook by having O’Connor sing the final line of the refrain a cappella before Justin Adams’s reggae-inspired lead guitar line kicks back in on the downbeat to the next verse. But the hook doesn’t work because its lyrics are just distractingly awful: “Not that he’s no wuss/Girls, you know his love is serious.” That the song also includes a reference to going on a “buggy ride” that doesn’t scan as any kind of double entendre is no less inexplicable.
“V.I.P.” has a relevant message about modern celebrities who are quick to invoke God when accepting an award, but who are less inclined to take a stand when that same religion is used to support institutionalized child rape. But O’Connor sounds woefully out of touch on the song, making stilted references to “the shallow forms of MTV” and “bling.” “Take Off Your Shoes” fares even worse, undermining what is perhaps the album’s densest narrative and most damning indictment of religious hypocrisy with a refrain that hinges on an allusion to, of all things, the Energizer bunny.
If her execution is sometimes lacking, though, the intensity of O’Connor’s emotions when confronting the difficult issues in these songs is never in doubt. Her voice is as evocative and stunning as it’s ever been. Even when she gives a more restrained performance, singing from the point of view of a dead soldier addressing the child he left behind on “Back Where You Belong,” or when she embraces full-on pop escapism on the joyful “Old Lady,” O’Connor remains a singularly authoritative vocalist.
When the songs are actually worthy of O’Connor’s forceful performances, How About I Be Me proves that she’s still capable of something vital. The central nature metaphor of “The Wolf Is Getting Married” makes reference to O’Connor’s prickly persona while providing context for its optimistic tone. “Your joy brings me joy,” she sings with an almost giddy abandon, following it up with “And your hope gives me hope.” No matter how grim the past or present, there’s always a chance for redemption and fulfillment: That fundamental belief carries How About I Be Me through even its least effective moments.