Sometimes it seems as if Sinead O'Connor is trying to make a career of contrariness.
Never one to settle for the status quo, she appears incapable of playing by other people's rules. When told by her record company that she should look a little more feminine, she shaved off her hair; when nominated for a Grammy, she denounced the whole awards process. Indeed, perhaps the only thing her fans expect of her is that she'll never do the expected.
Still, even her staunchest admirers are likely to be taken aback by her latest album, "Am I Not Your Girl?" (Ensign/Chrysalis 21592, arriving in record stores tomorrow). It isn't just that she has abandoned the post-punk approach of her previous albums for a collection of show tunes and standards, complete with big-band backing; what's truly surprising is that she does so without a trace of archness or irony.
O'Connor explains her enthusiasm for this music in her liner notes. "These are the songs I grew up listening to," she writes. "They are the songs that made me want to be a singer." And it's obvious that she means every note of this album, from the show-stopping chorus of "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" to the "boop-boop-ee-doop" in "I Want to Be Loved By You."
But that doesn't make the album any easier to swallow. For one thing, O'Connor quite simply doesn't have the voice for big band singing. Wan and reedy, it's better suited to a whisper than a shout, and that puts her at a distinct disadvantage when her arrangements call for a show of power, as on "Secret Love," where her earnest warble is no match for Torrie Zito's brassy arrangement (her delivery on the last verse verges on yelping).
Nor does O'Connor bother with the sort of shading and polish most standards singers rely on. There's little sense of swing in her rhythm, she seems incapable of finessing a phrase, and she rarely resorts to vibrato. Taken together, these stylistic tics leave her performances sometimes seeming stiff and amateurish, the work of one well out of her depth.
So should we even bother with the album?
Oddly enough, yes. Because no matter how awkward or naive her interpretations might be when compared to the work of Lena Horne, Mabel Mercer or Sarah Vaughan, there's an emotional honesty to them that more than makes up for her stylistic failings. She may not have learned the musical mannerisms as well as, say, Linda Ronstadt, but she understands what these songs are about -- and that's the important thing.
Listen, for example, to what she does with "Success (Has Made a Failure of Our Home)." When Loretta Lynn recorded the song, back in 1961, she treated it as a standard hillbilly lament. But O'Connor transforms it utterly, turning the tune's country cadences into a far more sophisticated complaint, and with Doug Katsaros' stormily dramatic orchestration raging behind her, she lends the song enough desperate intensity to take it worlds beyond where Lynn left it.
Nor is that the only place where her interpretive strengths outweigh her vocal weaknesses, for the same chemistry can be heard in the sassy sarcasm of "Why Don't You Do Right?," the romantic anguish of "Gloomy Sunday" or the prayer-like purity of "Scarlet Ribbons." O'Connor may not be your idea of a torch singer, but only the most priggish purist could remain unmoved by her performance here.