I know that I have done many things/To give you reason not to listen to me, sings Sinead O'Connor in "The Lamb's Book of Life," one of several new songs that ask forgiveness from her lovers, father and fans. Repentant and yet still gloriously provocative, Faith and Courage speaks with the jaw-clenched directness for which O'Connor is both famous and infamous. What it does most convincingly is give listeners reason to once again embrace the Irish firebrand.
It's designed like a mainstream R&B blockbuster, the kind that has a different producer-songwriter-player for nearly every track. Unexpected pairings draw out opposite aspects of the singer's complex musical personality. The result is an album of approachable pop that's both defiant and diverse and that flaunts rock's swagger, electronica's experimentalism, folk's introspection and hip-hop's social critique. O'Connor doesn't abandon the national identity she quietly asserted on her previous two releases; Faith and Courage layers playful Irish folk whistles and O'Connor's peerless cry into contemporary street sonics while navigating between inner spirituality and the conflicted outside world. The two domains meet on the show-stopping, string-laden anthem "No Man's Woman," where she declares she won't concede to male domination because she's already in love — with a "spirit." Sounds hokey on paper, but because O'Connor — the original Alanis — rocks so hard, the sentiment is nothing short of spine-tingling.
Another compact doozy, "Daddy I'm Fine," flips from looping reggae to double-time punk thrash while neatly encapsulating the singer's transformation from frustrated Dublin girl to world-class, ass-kickin' mom. Even serene ballads like "Emma's Song" suggest tension, ambivalence, mystery. It's a tribute to O'Connor's guiding presence that dub-funk masters Adrian Sherwood and Skip McDonald, Eurythmics' Dave Stewart, ex-Ednaswap rockers Scott Cutler and Anne Preven, Fugee Wyclef Jean, ex-Public Image Ltd. bassist Jah Wobble, Destiny's Child producer Kevin "She'kspere" Briggs and ambient guru Brian Eno can all contribute without overpowering the album's star. With its dauntless style juxtapositions and the singer's strongest songs in a decade, Faith and Courage restores this wayward soul to major rock-goddess status even as she strips down to her human essence. This is the SinÃ©ad album you've been wanting for years.