Sinéad O’Connor’s first album comes on like a banshee wail across the bogs. Blending the uncompromising force of folk music, the sonic adventurousness of the Eighties and lyrics that draw on classical history, ghost tales and the Bible, The Lion and the Cobra is easily one of the most distinctive debut albums of the last year.
This achievement is all the more remarkable in that O’Connor — who is twenty years old — produced the album herself and wrote or co-wrote eight of the nine songs on it. Her most significant previous credits include co-writing and singing the haunting song “Heroine” on the Edge’s soundtrack for The Captive and writing “Take My Hand,” which was recorded by the Irish band In Tua Nua when O’Connor was only fourteen.
Though O’Connor now lives in London, she grew up in Dublin, and the grim, uncontrollable romanticism of Irish traditional music sets the emotional tone for The Lion and the Cobra. “Jackie,” the first song on the album, tells the story of a woman who wanders the shore long after her death, awaiting the return of her lover lost at sea. The churning synthesizer and guitar build to a climactic crescendo, while O’Connor’s vocal ascends from a whisper to a scream.
The album’s range is deftly demonstrated when, quick on the howling fade of “Jackie,” the crunching rock & roll chords of “Mandinka” start up. The shift from a folkloric world of love beyond the grave to a contemporary setting of pop hooks and fetching emotional hesitancy — “Soon I can give you my heart,” O’Connor sings — is a bracing tour de force.
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From the poetic rapture of “Just Like U Said It Would B” (“When you close my eyes, babe/I can see most everything”) to the funky erotic insistence of “I Want Your (Hands on Me),” the rest of The Lion and the Cobra is no less accomplished. “Jerusalem” soars into an exultant, semimystical chorus; “Never Get Old” features a reading of the Ninety-first Psalm — which gave O’Connor the album’s title — in Gaelic; and “Drink Before the War” compellingly sketches the links between emotional repression and violence.
An urgent string arrangement lends dramatic momentum to the swirling currents of pain, jealousy and obsession running through “Troy.” “Just Call Me Joe” ends the album with a droning, hypnotic guitar dirge straight out of the Velvet Underground and Jesus and Mary Chain songbooks.
With The Lion and the Cobra, Sinéad O’Connor joins the ranks of Kate Bush, Laurie Anderson and Jane Siberry — all women who are shattering the boundaries of pop music.