Sinead O’Connor did not hold back. Not her voice, not her ideas, not her troubles, not her rage, not her sorrows, not her faith. From the moment her debut album, “The Lion and the Cobra,” appeared in 1987, O’Connor — whose death was announced on Wednesday — flaunted raw passion and raw nerve.
She seemed equally startling, at first, for her keening voice and her shaven head. Her singing encompassed cathartic extremes: lullabies and imprecations, sighs and howls. She made bold, intemperate public statements, like famously tearing up a photograph of the pope on “Saturday Night Live” in 1992. Yet her songs also offered comfort, nurturing and righteousness; she was an idealist, not a provocateur. And she struggled openly: with the music business, with unforgiving journalists, with career pressures and with mental illness.
O’Connor was emphatically Irish. The inflections of old Celtic music sharpened her voice, and she was shaped by her Catholic upbringing, if only to later reject it. Yet she was anything but provincial. She produced her own debut album when she was only 20, drawing already on punk, dance music, electronics and seething orchestral arrangements. She would go on to work with reggae, big-band music and more; her voice, even at its gentlest, could leap out.
O’Connor’s first two albums were her most inspired ones. They were charged with youthful turbulence and unbridled ambition, as O’Connor sang about love, death, power and making her own place in the world. She went through some fallow patches afterward, but she never stopped striving to sing her own truth.
With a distorted, three-chord rock stomp, O’Connor brashly announces, “I don’t know no shame/I feel no pain,” landing hard on dissonant notes. The song seesaws between refusal and acceptance, with a final tease of “Soon I can give you my heart.” But O’Connor also flexes her high notes in nonsense syllables that are as defiant as any word she sings.
One side of a lover’s quarrel unfurls across an operatic six and a half minutes, backed by a string ensemble that underlines every churning emotion: memories, accusations, confessions, vows, pleas, warnings and the sheer desperation when O’Connor sings, “Does she hold you like I do?” followed by a howl of pain.
‘I Want Your (Hands on Me)’ (1987)
Chattering, percussive funk carries this call for physical pleasure, and as she bounces her voice against the syncopated beat, O’Connor summons unabashed rasps and moans.
‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ (1990)
O’Connor’s commercial peak — a No. 1 pop single — thoroughly commandeered a song Prince wrote for a 1985 album by the Family. She makes her voice small and bereft, then lashes out at consolations; she places Celtic turns at the ends of phrases. And she brings crucial changes to Prince’s melody, making upward leaps when the chorus gets to the line “Nothing compares to you.” Its video clip — almost entirely a close-up of O’Connor’s face against a black background — forged an indelible image of loneliness.
‘I Am Stretched on Your Grave’ (1990)
A hip-hop beat backs an old Irish poem that was translated into English and turned into a song. Its narrator mourns the death of his lover, wishing to join her. O’Connor’s voice, completely exposed over the stark rhythm track, is otherworldly. A fiddle arrives near the end, completing the mesh of traditional and contemporary.
‘The Last Day of Our Acquaintance’ (1990)
The formal mechanics of a divorce — “I will meet you later in somebody’s office” — can’t contain the bitterness of the situation. For most of the song, O’Connor sings over two calmly strummed acoustic guitar chords, but agitation rises in her voice, and when a band eventually kicks in behind her there’s no mistaking her fury.
‘You Made Me the Thief of Your Heart’ (1994)
This incantatory rocker was written by Bono, Gavin Friday and Maurice Seezer for the film “In the Name of the Father.” If it sounds like O’Connor fronting 1990s U2 — with a pealing piano and an implacable beat — it draws the best from both, with U2’s echoey depths, O’Connor’s primal peaks and the high-stakes dynamics they both thrived on.
‘This Is to Mother You’ (1997)
O’Connor promises to “do what your own mother didn’t do” in a song that radiates kindliness and womanly strength. It’s a folky, Celtic-tinged lullaby that promises to end a dark back story, to release someone — perhaps a lover, as the video suggests — from “All the pain that you have known/All the violence in your soul.” It’s pure unselfish comfort.
“I don’t deserve to be lonely just ’cause you say I do,” O’Connor insists in “Jealous,” a not-quite-breakup ballad she wrote with Dave Stewart of Eurythmics. The beat is measured. But the singer’s partner is keeping her dangling, and she’s not sure what she wants either; she makes her harshest judgments in her most fragile voice.
‘Dense Water Deeper Down’ (2014)
The folk-rock jubilation of “Dense Water Deeper Down” — with muscular guitar strumming, layered harmonies, even some happy horns — celebrates a lover who “makes me forget everything my mother warned.” There’s just one catch: He’s only a memory.
Jon Pareles has been The Times’s chief pop music critic since 1988. A musician, he has played in rock bands, jazz groups and classical ensembles. He majored in music at Yale University. More about Jon Pareles
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