On Universal Mother, Sinéad O’Connor tells us more about herself than we probably should know. It’s record making as therapy, the byproduct of feelings still only half worked out, a bundle of self-revelations left suspended, twisting in the wind. It wobbles between being an awful record and a remarkable one, and maybe that’s why it works: It swings so wildly that it never sinks into that deathly muddy middle ground.
More than half the songs on Universal Mother sound so tenderhearted, you could almost close your ears to the rage marbled through them. The most openly rancorous songs are actually the least affecting: The simmered wrath of “Red Football” is botched by an unintentionally goofy beer-hall-from-hell chorus, and the political rant “Famine” can’t match the charring intensity of “Black Boys on Mopeds,” from O’Connor’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got (1990).
But O’Connor isn’t just draining her wounds here. The record is raw but in a buffed, alabaster way: It’s built largely on delicate piano-based arrangements, with an occasional lanky groove worked in. What’s more, O’Connor fights against fixating too much on her own troubled psyche. A handful of songs deal squarely with the kind of cruelty a mother can inflict on her child (“She’s taken everything I liked”), but an even bigger handful reinforce O’Connor’s protectiveness of every child’s childhood. The lullaby “My Darling Child” threatens to turn treacly, but when O’Connor addresses her kid as both “me little street fighter” and “me little lamby,” you realize how desperately she’s trying to arm him for battle with a terrible world.
Junior psychoanalysts will have a field day with Universal Mother, trying to untangle lines like “You were born on the day my mother was buried” as if they were Chinese puzzles. But less important than what O’Connor says is how she says it. Her rage is distilled in droplets, finding its way through her tissue-fragile voice like blood seeping through gauze. She’s not falling apart on this record — she’s holding herself together — and it’s infinitely more terrifying that way.