On her 1987 debut, The Lion and the Cobra, the twenty-year-old Irish-born Sinéad O’Connor came off as one of the most prodigious — not to mention eye-catching — new artists to hit pop music in years. Part punk, part mystic, she wrote songs about desire, God, history, loss, revolt, damnation and independence, all with equal passion; produced and arranged the songs in a style that spanned folk music, orchestral pop, hip-hop and avant-minded garage rock; and sang them in a voice that could range from the feral to the ethereal in a phrase. In short, O’Connor wasn’t afraid of mixing her impulses. Every time she stared into a camera or at an audience — with her big, doleful eyes and sexy-scary shaved head — she looked defiant and vulnerable, full of both hunger and fear for all that life might hold for her.
I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got is less about O’Connor’s ambitions than the cost of those ambitions, and in almost every regard, it is an even better record than her first. The album seems the work of a transformed woman — someone who has put aside much of the anger and confusion that fueled her earlier songs and has found a hard-earned measure of spiritual happiness. It opens with a prayer for strength and wisdom and closes with another, offering a brave, fearful thanks for equanimity. Yet it is what comes between those prayers — a journey through rage and heartbreak to grace — that ultimately makes this record so memorable and so powerful.
Indeed, if I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got is a work about spirit, it is a spirit that is fierce and caustic. “I should have hatred for you/But I do not have any…. And you have taught me plenty,” O’Connor sings toward the end of the album’s opening track, “Feel So Different.” In that moment, it is impossible to tell whether she is confronting a distant god or a failed lover — or both.
In any event, the memory of a hard loss burns at the heart of this album. Somebody, it seems — apparently a mentor as much as a lover — has shattered the singer’s trust, and the fallout from that ordeal spills into nearly every song. It feels as if there is no distance between the life the singer has lived this last year or so and the one she is singing about. O’Connor has created not only an unflinching portrait of broken romance but also a glimpse into the personal costs of sudden success and how an artist’s public persona can be turned against her in private moments.
“I never said I was tough/That was everyone else,” she sings in “You Cause As Much Sorrow,” in a voice that sounds both wounded and indignant. “So you’re a fool to attack me/For the image that you built yourself.” Elsewhere, in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” the memories turn angry, and so does the music. “He thinks I just became famous/And that’s what messed me up,” O’Connor snarls. “But he’s wrong/How could I possibly know what I want/When I was only twenty-one?” And in “The Last Day of Our Acquaintance” — a song about the dissolution of both a business relationship and a love affair — O’Connor sings, “I know you don’t love me anymore/You used to hold my hand when the plane took off.” In that simple detail she conveys the depths of loneliness and fear a young artist can feel when led to the brink of fame, and then abandoned.
In some ways, the album’s most affecting love song is O’Connor’s cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” which was originally recorded by the Family (one of Prince’s protégé bands) in an arty, overworked manner. O’Connor redeems the song with the best voice she has yet summoned on record — a voice that is lusty and unguarded all at once. Like a seasoned torch singer, she inhabits the song and makes its deepest longings seem personally, even exclusively, her own. “Nothing can stop these lonely tears from falling/Tell me baby, where did I go wrong,” she sings in a voice that ranges between pop fragility and blues melisma. In the process, she makes the song sound like a secret pain that had to be shared before the singer could be free.
But there’s more to I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got than bruised and angry hearts. Much of it can be enjoyed simply for its sonic surfaces — for the rapturous tune and texture of “Three Babies” or the way that O’Connor pits a half-Gaelic, half-Middle Eastern melody against a gutbucket snare beat and a low-throbbing hip-hop bass pulse in “I Am Stretched Out on Your Grave.” Some of it, like “Black Boys on Mopeds,” can be appreciated simply for its valor. A disarmingly dreamy-sounding folk song about the police-involved death of a London black youth, “Black Boys on Mopeds” takes on big targets — British racism, the hypocrisy of Margaret Thatcher’s government — and by the song’s end, O’Connor envisions leaving a country that is willing to sanction such brutality. In an album about personal suffering and transcendence, “Black Boys on Mopeds” serves as a crucial reminder of the ongoing struggles of the outside world.
Indeed, Sinéad O’Connor seems to comprehend truths that, in a better world, one might not need to know. She realizes that love too often ends in betrayal; that there are forces in the world willing to silence or kill you for your differences; and that you may never receive some of the things you need most in this life — or that you can get them and still have your heart broken.
So in the closing a cappella reading of the title song, O’Connor offers the prayer that the album has been building to: “I’m walking through the desert/And I am not frightened…. I have all that I requested/And I do not want what I haven’t got.” It’s a bid to find a way to accept what can’t be changed, to make peace with loss and limitation and to win the courage to live and love.
Elsewhere — in the spite and tantrum of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” — she offers a different ideal: “I will have my own policies/I will sleep with a clear conscience…. Maybe it sounds mean/But I really don’t think so/You asked for the truth and I told you.” Such conviction may not make for a very humble prayer, but it makes for a promise that, judging from her breathtaking second album, Sinéad O’Connor is determined to fulfill.