Following releases that covered traditional Irish folksongs and reggae, Theology is Sinéad O’Connor’s first album of (mostly) all-original material since 2000’s criminally overlooked Faith and Courage. Theology is essentially two different takes on almost the same exact collection of songs, the first an acoustic set recorded in Dublin and the second a more fleshed-out interpretation of the songs tracked with a full band and a live string section in London. One could pontificate about the fact that a single disc, whittled down from the best takes of each song, would have made Theology a more commercially viable enterprise, but, what with O’Connor’s checkered past with the Catholic church (and, of course, John Paul II himself) and generally anti-organized religion stance (“You’re like a ghost in your own home,” she says of God on “Out of the Depths”) and the album’s overt spiritual bent, it would be a hard sell to both secular and Christian audiences anyway.
The Dublin Sessions are reminiscent of O’Connor’s early work, and the subtle use of delay and vocal overdubs that simulate a whispering gospel choir lend an otherworldly quality to the recordings, but the consistently stripped-down nature of the disc eventually grows tiresome and puts even more emphasis on the lyrics, which can become tedious and heavy-handed at times. There are a few instances in which the intimate approach of the first disc is preferable to the more heavily produced second disc, but, for the most part, The London Sessions sound more like a fully-realized album: the full-band incarnations of “The Glory of Jah” and “Whomsoever Dwells” are vast improvements over their acoustic counterparts, while the rock n’ roll spirit of “33” (“Turn up your bass amp/Whack it up all the way to ’save him’”) becomes more than figurative. “If You Had a Vineyard,” already powerful in its allegory of patience, acceptance, free will, and hypocrisy, soars to even loftier heights with the aid of production team RonTom, and “Watcher of Men,” awash with almost sinister strings and a heavy hip-hop beat, is rendered even more ominous.
Pop artists are often best served when their mystical musings are wrapped in more mainstream pop packaging and one need look no further than O’Connor’s own Faith and Courage for proof. That album managed to confidently address spirituality, feminism, and politics while, at the same time, offering accessible, contemporary pop tunes produced by some the biggest names in the business (Wyclef Jean, Kevin “She’kspere” Briggs, Adrian Sherwood, Brian Eno). Theology is considerably more overt in its piety, but it’s not your typical Christian rock album either. There are no promises of eternal life, salvation, or even symbolic renewed beginnings. O’Connor has lived a life of confrontation, and that’s reflected in the wariness (and weariness) of her lyrics and voice, which, at times, sounds huskier and worn with age. And, of course, she’s still got a rebel streak: After stealing a Bible in the song “Something Beautiful,” she says to God, “I think we’re agreed that it should have been free.” Unlike many other Christian rock albums, Theology is for the oppressed, not the oppressors.