Delicate and Ferocious, Worldly and Mystical: Sinead O’Connor’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got

By Daniel Garrett

Sinead O’Connor, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got
Chrysalis, 1990

I still recall the song “Troy” from the first album, The Lion and the Cobra, of Sinead O’Connor, in which she sounds as wild as anything I have heard in music.  What’s surprising, even amazing, about Sinead O’Connor is her ability to sound—and be—very delicate and also ferocious; intelligent and purely instinctive; of this world and mystical.   Her discography includes I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got—it may not be too soon to call that a classic; and also Am I Not Your Girl?, Universal Mother, Faith and Courage, Sean-Nus Nua, She Who Dwells, and Throw Down Your Arms, a collection of reggae songs.   On I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, the first song, “Feel So Different,” is about change, about someone breaking through alienation but returning to a sense of disappointment in relationships.  “I Am Stretched On Your Grave,” about love so devoted it lasts beyond death, apparently a traditional Irish song arranged by Philip King, is here given by O’Connor a hip-hop beat and acquires a nearly middle-eastern sound, conjuring something ancient and tribal.  The tensions of a relationship, and in a family, in a world of twisted advice-givers is described in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” in which “they laugh ‘cause they know they’re untouchable/ not because what I said was wrong,” and O’Connor ends the song with “I will have my own policies, I will sleep with a clear conscience, I will sleep in peace.”  She enacts the shock at violent, state-condoned racial prejudice and poverty in “Black Boys on Mopeds,” an intentionally naïve songs (she acts out what would be a normal response in a better world: grief, intolerance of cruelty, withdrawal to a better place).   The album contains other songs of extreme love and separation.  “I’m full of good intentions, like I never was before,” she begins “You Cause As Much Sorrow,” and she sings the verses slowly, gravely, with an almost calculating awareness, and sings the choruses lightly, seeming to switch from a subjective to an objective tone, but with the recurring line “You cause as much sorrow dead/ as you did when you were alive” it’s clear this song is not about sweetness and light.  In the closing song, the album’s title song, “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got,” she describes walking without fear through the desert, saying, “I have all that I requested/ and I do not want what I haven’t got.”  I recognized immediately the rhetorical power of the song, but it was only recently did I realize the song is a kind of hymn: “no longer will I be hungry for the bread of life is mine.”  Sinead O’Connor recalls the advice she received; revelation: “You must not try to be too pure./ You must fly closer to the sea.”  On the more recent Throw Down Your Arms, there is a continuation: a collection of reggae songs, it is an affirmation of empathy with others and spiritual exploration, and her talent shows no diminishment; and I am drawn to “Downpressor Man,” a song of chastisement.   Sinead O’Connor is one of the most significant talents to emerge in the last twenty years.

DanielGarrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon, wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader.  Daniel Garrett’s work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics.