It’s been six years since Sinéad O’Connor last toured North America—a small eternity in the music business. Her series of concerts has been unofficially billed in Europe, where it launched in January, as a “comeback tour.” In Chicago alone, she plays three dates (March 14 through 16—all sold out) at City Winery (1200 West Randolph).
This kind of large-scale event is usually tied to a new album, or a retrospective collection, or even a biography; O’Connor reportedly has plans to release new music (a book, too), but there isn’t anything on sale, or even announced yet. Which doesn’t necessarily mean the singer-songwriter hasn’t got something to talk about. In fact, if there’s one constant in O’Connor’s wide-ranging career, it’s that she always has something to say—and it’s often something a lot of people don’t want to hear.
The news is that she’s converted to Islam, and has changed her name to Shuhada Davitt (though she’s kept her stage name intact). In an appearance on Ireland’s “The Late Late Show” to kick off the tour, O’Connor wore a hijab and performed her seminal 1990 hit, the Prince-penned “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Her voice remains an astonishing instrument—still the fierce, incantatory, indelibly Celtic keening that stopped traffic in 1987, the year she released her stunning debut, “The Lion and the Cobra.” But the revelatory thing about her “Late Late Show” performance is that for a twenty-first-century audience, her Muslim headwear is every bit as startling as her shaved scalp was thirty-two years ago.
Those with long memories may scoff at O’Connor’s conversion. They’ll recall the kinetic way she’s boomeranged across the spiritual spectrum. She started her career as a passionate denouncer of the Catholic Church, and sparked her first international scandal by tearing up a photo of Pope John Paul II during a guest spot on “Saturday Night Live.” Jaws dropped a few years later when she was ordained as a priest by the Irish Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church, a splinter organization unaffiliated with Rome. As recently as 2014, O’Connor appeared in clerical collar and crucifix in her video for the single “8 Good Reasons.”
Her reemergence as a Muslim may seem an equally whiplash move, although she describes it as “the natural conclusion of any intelligent theologian’s journey.” Making such a sweeping pronouncement on behalf of a wide swath of people beyond herself is typical of O’Connor’s willingness to speak what’s on her mind, and to hell with the consequences. A more incendiary example is the tweet in which she declared, “I never wanna spend time with white people again (if that’s what non-muslims are called). Not for one moment, for any reason. They are disgusting.” She later apologized, claiming to have been “angry and unwell.”
Like many who love her music, I forgive her habit of burning bridges, if only because she always burns them before she’s made it all the way across. Any genuine artist puts self-care at the bottom of her list of priorities, and O’Connor has been absolutely reckless in her quest for enlightenment and fulfillment. Unlike other singers who famously lived self-immolating lives (Garland, Piaf, Holliday, Joplin, Winehouse), O’Connor’s tribulations aren’t related to drugs, booze and men. Hers are the result of headlong plunges into ideological and political torrents. To find an analogue, you’d have to go back to the nineteenth century. To my mind, there’s something Byronesque about her.
Compare this to her near contemporary, Madonna, who, like O’Connor has a reputation for continual reinvention. But from Material Girl to Madame X, Madge’s incarnations are marketing brands; her overriding philosophical principle is the bottom line. O’Connor’s reinventions are rebirths, in that they’re messy, noisy, painful and involve the emergence of an unsteady new self. This has always been the key to her art, and the darkest period of her life followed what seems to have been an attempt to suppress the nakedly confessional tone of her work. “I’m Not Bossy, I’m The Boss,” her 2014 release, was publicized as a concept album, with each song reflecting a facet of the life of a single, invented character. This was a bizarre marketing ploy, given that the character in question sure as hell sounded like Sinéad O’Connor. One set of lyrics goes, “You know I love to make music / But my head got wrecked by the business … I became the stranger no one sees / Cut glass I’ve crawled upon my knees.”
The album was well-received and even charted, hitting number eighty-eight on the Top 100. All the same, a period of silence and obscurity ensued, broken in 2017 when O’Connor posted a twelve-minute video on Facebook, which she recorded in a hotel room in New Jersey. Addressing the camera directly, the clearly distraught singer divulges that she’s feeling suicidal. It’s difficult to watch—and, in fact, I haven’t viewed it in full, out of respect for the dignity of someone suffering mental tumult, if not mental illness. She was subsequently hospitalized, and improved with treatment and therapy; but I remember at the time thinking that the demons that assailed her in that hotel room would, in the ordinary course of her life, have been dealt with through her music. O’Connor is part of a community of creators for whom making art is literally a matter of survival. There are few enough of them on the scene in these music-as-corporate-product times, and we shouldn’t take them for granted; they have a great deal to teach us—even though we hope, for her sake, that Islam is the last stop on O’Connor’s train.
Since she hasn’t released any new music, O’Connor’s City Winery performances will mine her extensive back catalogue. Reviews of her European dates have praised a searingly defiant reading of “Queen of Denmark,” the John Grant song from her 2012 album, “How About I Be Me (And You Be You),” as well as “Hold Back the Night” from 2000’s “Faith and Courage.” But perhaps understandably, the concerts have been heaviest on material from her spectacularly successful second album, “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got” (1990), with O’Connor revisiting tunes like “Black Boys On Mopeds” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” That the singer can reinhabit those early hits today, in her fifties, and on the far side of a grueling vision quest that all but reordered her at the cellular level, is a triumph.
As for the inevitable encore of that career-making number-one hit: if there’s anything more healing at this particular cultural moment than a woman in a hijab wailing the eros-drenched lyrics of Prince Rogers Nelson, please point me in its direction. I would like to shake its hand.
Robert Rodi is an author, spoken-word performer and musician who has served as Newcity’s Music Editor since 2014. He’s written more than a dozen books, including the travel memoir “Seven Seasons In Siena.” His jazz quintet recently completed a two-year residency at Uncommon Ground, and he regularly hosts a jazz singers’ jam at Lizard’s Liquid Lounge. His literary and music criticism has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Salon, The Huffington Post and many other national and regional publications.