In my circle, this was pretty much the album of the year for 1990. There were some dissenters, but for the most part, we listened to it a lot and we loved it a lot. I was interning at a local radio station at the time, and I remember how blown away everybody was by O’Connor’s wrenching vocal on “Nothing Compares 2 U.” If you went through a breakup in that year — and I did — several tracks from this were sure to end up on an angst-filled mixtape or two. At the time, it seemed like the absolute perfect divorce album.
Listening to it again, nearly 30 years later, I find that it hasn’t lost much of its luster as a chronicle of heartbreak. But it’s gained some new dimensions for me. Maybe it’s just me projecting what I know of O’Connor’s subsequent public life, and what I’ve learned from my own subsequent experience, but I no longer hear just the voice of somebody going through a terrible breakup — I hear the voice of somebody going through a terrible breakup while mentally ill.
“Mentally ill” isn’t a negative judgment in my sight, and in fact I strongly support efforts to decrease the stigma of that label. It’s just a description of the reality that some people have to live with, and I think at least at the time of this album, O’Connor was one of them.
Think about the image at the beginning of the album’s most staggeringly powerful song, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”:
It seems years since you held the baby
While I wrecked the bedroom
When I heard that at 20 years old, I just thought, “Wow, intense.” Now, maybe it’s because I’m a parent, but I picture that scene — you’ve had a child with someone, and you find yourself holding that tiny child, watching while she, possessed by an overwhelming rage and absolutely no impulse control, physically tears apart the house you share.
At that moment, watching it happen, your future spills out before you. Your partner, your child’s mother, is a violent danger to you both, and herself. It’s a fucking terrifying image. “You said it was dangerous after Sunday,” the next line goes, and no wonder. Someone with that level of anger, who will actually wreck the bedroom, is somebody you have to get away from, and protect your child from, until she can get that shit under control.
Now, O’Connor points to a lot of places to explain herself. She gestures at youth — “How could I possibly know what I want when I was only 21?” She blames hormones — “You know how it is and how a pregnancy can change you.” She lines up behind Honesty — “You asked for the truth, and I told you.” She places her fear in the context of an equally scary dependency — “I would return to nothing without you, if I’m your girlfriend or not.” And yeah, it’s certainly true that there’s overlap between the symptoms of mental illness and the symptoms of youth, pregnancy, and romantic extremes, but as somebody who has been through or next to all three, I can vouch for the fact that they don’t reliably cause violent outbursts of fury.
“The Emperor’s New Clothes” isn’t the only song that finds O’Connor seeming genuinely disturbed. How about this expression: “If you said jump in the river I would / Because it would probably be a good idea”? Or this image, referencing babies: “In my soul / my blood and my bones / I have wrapped your cold bodies around me”? Even the covers she chooses are pretty unsettling. “Nothing Compares 2 U” opens with the starkly obsessed, “It’s been seven hours and fifteen days / Since you took your love away.” And “I Am Stretched On Your Grave” pretty much speaks for itself.
And yet, god damn does she make it sound good. “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is an absolutely riveting track, just as inspiring and hypnotic the 500th time through as it was the first. When she declares, “Whatever it may bring / I will live by my own policies / I will sleep with a clear conscience / I will sleep in peace”, I find myself thinking “HELL YEAH.” That’s been a central quote in my life for years, and I can’t see that changing anytime soon. And when I put “I Am Stretched On Your Grave” on a heartbroken mixtape, I related deeply to its imagery, not to mention its haunting backbeat. Like I said, there’s overlap.
Also, I realize that many of the album’s songs are heavily figurative. I know she’s not literally haunted in “You Cause As Much Sorrow,” nor actually clutching dead infants in “Three Babies,” nor actually turning into birds in “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.” In fact, in several places I really have no idea what she’s on about, and a cursory online search hasn’t turned up much information except for the fact that she was still grieving her mother’s death from five years earlier.
I still love this album. O’Connor’s voice is a natural wonder, and her production showcases it immaculately. Her songwriting (aside from “Jump In The River,” which is a notch below everything else) is first rate, and several of the songs on this album are as good as she ever got. And it’s been an awfully long time (thank god) since I’ve been through the kind of relationship angst that infuses I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, so perhaps I have a distance from it now that I lacked when it came out. I just see it now as an artifact of someone baring a tortured soul, and I hope she’s gotten the help she needed to find peace since then.