On the surface, Sinéad O'Connor's six-song EP, Gospel Oak, is a soothing hot tub of Celtic New Age atmospherics and polite hip-hop grooves. Barely audible over the Jacuzzi-friendly instrumentation is the sound of O'Connor talking to herself. Listen closely to what she says and this record doesn't seem quite so comforting.
The effect is like eavesdropping on a bedside prayer or a 2 a.m. conversation between an embattled couple. "Your rage is like a fist in my womb," O'Connor sings in a hushed voice, as though trying not to wake the baby in the next room. "Can't you forgive what you think I've done?" There are songs about mothering and motherhood, spiritual orphans and distant lovers, and, on "This Is a Rebel Song," barriers both emotional and political that separate an Irishwoman from the "hard Englishman" she craves to understand.
But the O'Connor who attacked high notes with biblical fury on her debut album a decade ago is long gone, and she could stand to make a few more ripples on this relatively placid release. The blend of funky drummer beats and Irish instrumental inflections on "Petit Poulet" and "4 My Love" is enticing, but too often, Gospel Oak suggests the mystic easy listening of O'Connor's country-woman Enya. At the very least, Gospel Oak is well-crafted: The melodies are slight but stately; the production unobtrusive, although the occasional use of unnatural reverb and multitracking to thicken O'Connor's voice is a distraction.
She's at her best when the gimmicks and sweeteners are cleared away. On "He Moved Through the Fair," accompanied by little more than an acoustic guitar and atmospheric keyboards, O'Connor is miked so closely, one can hear her inhaling before starting a phrase. It's a rare unguarded moment in a record that exposes its scars almost too tastefully.