Is it a coincidence that Irish alt-rock pioneer Sinead O’Connor has released a song called “Take Me To Church” just as fellow Irish singer-songwriter Hozier is making waves with a song of the same name?
Hozier’s melancholy tune swipes at the Catholic Church and deifies sex as an ultimate truth and inalienable right. O’Connor - who has certainly never been shy about her views on the church she still calls home - strikes a much more healing tone. Hozier croons: “Take me to church / I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies / I’ll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife.” O’Connor, meanwhile, acknowledges her own culpability as she begs the church to rise to the occasion it was designed for. When she belts out “Oh, take me to church / I’ve done so many bad things it hurts. / Take me to church, but not the ones that hurt / ’cuz that ain’t the truth / and that’s not what it’s for,” it feels much more like a prayer than an accusation.
On her new album, I’m Not Bossy, I’m The Boss, O’Connor continues the comeback she began with 2012’s confessional, guttural and blatantly Christ-haunted How About I Be Me (And You Be You?). The title references the popular “Ban Bossy” campaign for female empowerment in a surprisingly vulnerable and spiritual way. For O’Connor, empowerment flows from personal responsibility and self-awareness. The songs track the liberating journey of one woman as she discovers a level of self-respect and personal peace that no romantic escapade can deliver. The black wig and latex she wears on the album cover suggest that this often deeply personal artist is stepping a bit outside of herself this time around - but bringing her hard-earned wisdom along for the ride.
The album opens with the line, “I wanna be a real full woman, and live like a real full woman every day.” While intimacy is certainly a part of being a “full woman,” the songs that follow underscore the truth that there is a lot more to womanhood than being with a man. The album’s journey unfolds through several musical iterations that include snarling rock, sensitive pop and even African rhythm and blues until taking a left turn in the song “The Voice of My Doctor,” which begins a set of edgier, darker tunes exploring the true underpinnings of desire. That act climaxes with the fantastic shuffle “8 Good Reasons,” in which her character defies suicidal thoughts and turns yet another corner. It is at that point that she begs, “Take me to church!”
In various interviews over the last year O’Connor has promised that this would be an album of love songs, and in a way it is. But the real beauty here is that the artist seems to assert that much of what people crave about love is not physical at all. The goal here is the discovery of womanhood – or, really, humanity – that goes far beyond sex. After her character gets to church she seems to come out the other side wizened, emboldened and aware of the sinister nature of selfish desire. The album ends with a trio of songs that reflect that growth in a gentle and personal way.
As many contemporary artists reject their connection to a community of faith when its leaders make bad choices or its message becomes unpalatable to the rest of the world, O’Connor continues to call herself a Catholic despite her deep disagreements she has with many in that community. When she speaks about the “smoke screen” role religion often plays in keeping people apart from God, her words come across with the authority of a boss and the compassion of a big sister.
I’m Not Bossy is a fascinating set of tunes from one of the most consistently creative artists of the last 25 years. The fact that so many of its songs fade out before really feeling finished reinforces the idea that this discussion is far from over.