By Mark Guarino
Until the day she sings her last note, Sinead O’Connor will be known for two things: Being bald and ripping up a photograph of Pope Paul II on live television.
In an ideal world, her postscript would more likely be this: Being the most sublime singer and song interpreter of her generation and an artist who approaches music as a way to ready spiritual catharsis.
But because this is a cultural climate where music companies now give recording contracts to people like Paris Hilton and Kelly Osbourne and rely on studio gimmicks like Auto-Tune to make mediocre talent sound half-way normal, it isn’t a surprise that O’Connor — in the U.S. at least — is out of place. Mainstream media channels may marginalize the Irish singer, who performs at Symphony Center Sunday, but she continues to make albums that collectively explore new musical territory. O’Connor’s voice can be chilling for how it makes the music sound so personal but the wonderment of her voice ultimately makes the questions expressed in the music sound universal.
Her new album is “Theology” (Koch), a double-CD of songs offered in two versions: The first disc, recorded in Dublin, features simple instrumentation. The second disc, recorded in London, presents the songs with orchestration.
It is her first album of original songs in seven years. Between then and now came an album of traditional Irish songs (2002’s “Sean Nos Nua”) and another of reggae spirituals (2005’s “Throw Down Your Arms”), recorded in Jamaica with the elastic rhythm duo Sly & Robbie. Despite the disparity of the music, O’Connor, 40, was able to connect both cultures through her voice, which conveyed a passion for God and discontent for earthly ignorance.
Her newly penned songs on “Theology” come from a similar place. If the two discs can be compared, the Dublin sessions are those that carry the most weight. The London sessions, featuring full band arrangements and sometimes a backup choir and strings, either submerge O’Connor’s vocals (“I Don’t Know How to Love Him”) or cheapen them through tacky synthesizers and dated electronic beats (“We Are People Who Are Darker Than Blue”).
O’Connor’s voice is inherently serious and demands either music that plays against it or humbly follows suit. But with the precious accompaniment of strings and snare beat (“Something Beautiful”), it sounds like a churchly processional.
Only the buff rock guitars of “Glory of Jah” sound convincing considering the directed plea of the song. Of all the songs here, it connects the most with the most defiant work of her early career.
The simpler presentation of the Dublin sessions makes this endeavor worthwhile. Traditional Irish musician Steve Cooney plays guitar to her singing. The music leaves the church and enters the living room. O’Connor sounds freer, more lost in her singing. “Something Beautiful” becomes a prayer of devotion. The thicket of guitars on “Watcher of Man” darkly underline the song’s self-doubt (“Why did I not die at birth?/Expire as I came from the womb?”). On Curtis Mayfield’s “We People Who Are Darker Than Blue,” she sings in a near-whisper, reworking the lyrics to fit a woman’s perspective. As on all of these songs, O’Connor sings to reveal the mystery while at the same time taking care to leave it that way too.