For as heartbreaking as it was to watch Sinead O’Connor’s confessional Facebook video last August, its rawness and honesty nevertheless served as a reminder of the reasons people fell in love with her when her debut album, The Lion and the Cobra, dropped 30 years ago (Nov. 4, 1987).
At the time, O’Connor was a 20-year-old woman whose only proper credit was “Heroine,” a song she co-wrote with U2 guitarist The Edge for his soundtrack to the 1986 Anglo-French film Captive. Yet she burst onto the college radio and alternative music scene with a fiercely vibrant vocal range that split the difference between Kate Bush and Perry Farrell.
She was fearless. When she realized her label Ensign Records was planning on upselling her beauty and sexuality, she shaved her head. She disassociated herself from her potentially career-making ties with U2 by decrying them as “bombastic.” She kicked original Lion producer Mick Glossop out of the studio and took control of the boards by herself, declaring him “a fucking old hippie” despite his pedigree working with such post-punk pioneers as Magazine, The Ruts and Public Image Ltd.
It should be mentioned O’Connor was doing all this while seven months pregnant with her first child. It was a perfect storm of frenetic energy, channeled through the power of songs like “Jackie,” “Jerusalem” and her breakthrough single “Mandinka,” a staple on MTV’s 120 Minutes upon its premiere in Jan. 1988. “I Want Your (Hands On Me)” was informed by O’Connor’s love for hip-hop and featured a nasty guest turn from pioneering rapper MC Lyte (it was also featured during a key death scene in Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master).
Additionally, the album sees New Age queen Enya reciting a passage from the 91st Psalm of the Bible in her native Gaelic, which includes the line from which the album’s title was taken: “You shall tread upon the lion and the cobra, the young lion and the serpent you shall trample underfoot.”
Throughout the album, you can hear O’Connor’s love for Siouxsie & The Banshees, Peter Gabriel and Prince (whose song “Nothing Compares 2 U” would become her biggest hit in 1990) bleeding into one another as the singer wields the full power of her voice, a soft-loud dynamic that reaches its crescendo on the album’s six-minute centerpiece and first single “Troy” as well as the waltz-like “Just Like U Said It Would B” featuring Steve Wickham of The Waterboys on string arrangements. The album’s epic closer “Just Call Me Joe” is a tour-de-force. described by renowned Rolling Stone critic Anthony DeCurtis as “a droning, hypnotic guitar dirge straight out of the Velvet Underground and Jesus and Mary Chain songbooks” that highlights the potency of Sinead’s crack studio band, featuring then-husband and Transvision Vamp drummer John Reynolds, former Adam and the Ants guitarist Marco Pirroni, Japan guitarist Rob Dean and Mike Clowes from the Stiff Little Fingers offshoot outfit Friction Groove on keyboards. Not enough has been written about the crucial role this combination of players had in complementing the manic energy singing, wailing and cooing before them.
“O’Connor is more lion than snake, of course,” declared Sal Cinquemani in Slant Magazine‘s 100 Best Albums of the 1980s feature from March 2012. “She purrs like a kitten you’re fully aware is capable of lunging for your throat at any moment.”
So while O’Connor’s cry for help over the summer elicited pity from the masses, even landing her a spot on Dr. Phil, for many of her longtime fans, seeing that Facebook video was an incredibly bold show of strength. The same kind that prompted her to shear off her locks, to tear up a picture of the Pope on Saturday Night Live in protest of the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse cover-up, and speak so boldly about her own personal views as she did in a 1991 interview with Spin founder Bob Guccione, Jr. where she called for the abolishment of MTV.
“TV conditions people,” she said. “They sit in front of them all day and they believe everything that comes on. And just from a scientific point alone, it’s when an image changes constantly – and MTV is the worst example of that – the brain doesn’t learn to concentrate because you’re getting so used to it seeing things for a second, that what you see is not really getting through. It’s bad for people who want to study or learn something. The people have lost their spirituality. We don’t have contact anymore with who we are and what the meaning of life is and we don’t have contact anymore with God.”
Indeed, Sinead is more lion than cobra, a powerful and emotional creature unafraid of expressing her pain in the public arena if it gives a voice to the voiceless. And by melting down for the world to see on Facebook, that is exactly what she did for the millions of people living with mental illness. It can only be hoped that she transforms this temporary setback into a proper comeback that evokes the power of her best work, such as her Grammy-nominated debut.
“Sinead is a brave and courageous woman,” the singer’s new manager Anna M. Sala said in August. “She says her truth without fear or shame. And just as she fought against child abuse in the church, she will fight with the same strength against the stigma of mental illness, even while putting her own neck on the line.”