Old-school grubbiness: the return of Sinéad O’Connor
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Sinead O’Connor’s lively, messy and contradictory version of feminism

A concept album of sorts, this claims to chart the emotional experiences of an imaginary woman – from romantic activities to pain, deception and more.

Sinéad O’Connor
I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss (Nettwerk Records)

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Hypnotic Eye (Reprise)

This time of year, I’m often asked what makes a good “summer song”. As far as I can see, this evocative, lucrative subdivision of pop can be divided into two categories: the “microclimate” song, which imports a sense of sunshine and revelry whatever the weather (those by Will Smith, Kid Rock, Mungo Jerry), and the “sunny with a chance of rain” song, summery music that still acknowledges the misery and anxiety of human experience. In this second genre, you will find everything by the Eagles and Lily Allen’s “LDN”, the Wordsworth-inspired celebration of the capital in the sunshine (and its hellish flip side).

As the Windermere bard noted, our memories often colour one period with feelings that were really attached to another time. There are many for whom the sound of summer 2014 will forever be Pharrell Williams’s “Happy”, which came out last November. One thing is certain: summer is all about singles. August, for album releases, is a graveyard slot. So let’s see who’s got one out.

First up is Sinéad O’Connor with her tenth album, I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss, named in honour of Lean In’s “Ban Bossy” campaign earlier this year. The opening number, “How About I Be Me”, in which she outlines her need to “make love like a real full woman every day”, feels like a reflection on her very public relationship with drugs counsellor Barry Herridge. The pair met on the internet, married in Las Vegas and for various reasons – one being a midnight mission by Sinéad to find marijuana – divorced after just 16 days (they have apparently reunited). She later wrote on her blog that he was too good a person to “trap” in matrimony – that she was sorry she wasn’t “a more regular woman”.

I enjoyed this album. Say what you like about O’Connor, but she’s lively. There’s an old-school, Tracey Emin-ish grubbiness in her images of female sexuality. Though she recently wrote frowning letters to Miley Cyrus (“I am extremely concerned for you that those around you have led you to believe that it is in any way ‘cool’ to be naked and licking sledgehammers in your videos . . .”), there is nothing censorious about the feminist messages of I’m Not Bossy, which are messy and contradictory.

A concept album of sorts, it claims to chart the emotional experiences of an imaginary woman – from romantic activities with a) her pillow (“Dense Water Deeper Down”) and b) the jacket of a longed-for man (“Your Green Jacket”) to pain, deception and more. In “The Vishnu Room”, a woman freezes in the presence of a man she adores, afraid to expose herself in case she is not “hot enough” for him (Sinéad’s words, in the press release). I know! It’s like Mills & Boon! In “Where Have You Been?” Sinéad watches a man’s eyes turn black during coitus and is frightened. People may discuss what brand of feminism this is – I pity these earthy 1980s trailblazers touching down in our uptight age. Above all, it’s musically vibrant, barrelling along on reverb-heavy blues-rock and Afrobeat, in the case of “James Brown”. Only “8 Good Reasons” seems like a mismatch, so bouncy it could be a Bruno Mars song, with Sinéad doing a weird London accent. Her voice has also been multitracked on many songs, which seems strange when neither the music nor the lyrics ask for a heavenly choir.

Scanning the wasteland for other releases, I spy Hypnotic Eye by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Now 63 and on his 16th studio album, Iconic Tom is unlikely to care if his album hits the summer release slump here. As his publicist put it, when I asked if he was doing any interviews, “He’s not coming to town.” (That is, Europe.) In Petty’s world, it is forever summer, a desert land of night-riding, shadows, red roads and Mustangs, both the car and animal kinds.

The Heartbreakers have been going for 38 years. The high point of their 2010 album, Mojo, was the seven-minute “First Flash of Freedom”, which sounded like a glorious mash-up of “Take Five” and America’s “A Horse with No Name”. Hypnotic Eye chooses as its raw material 1960s rock’n’roll – a sound so primal you can’t go wrong – shot through with Petty’s fluid, Kermitty voice.

August is quite a good time for “Americana” releases; who knows why? There’s also a vast box set out by the Georgia-based Lynyrd Skynyrd-a-likes Blackberry Smoke, whom I interviewed once on a country music cruise. I asked them that old question: what was the moment they realised they’d “made it”? They said it was when the clientele in their usual bar stopped fighting and turned around to listen. 

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 06 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Gaza

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The radio station where the loyal listeners are chickens

Emma Hills, the head chicken trainer at Giffords Circus, knows what gets them clucking.

“The music is for the chickens, because of course on the night the music is very loud, and so it needs to be a part of their environment from the very start.” Emma Hills, the head chicken trainer at Giffords Circus, is standing in the sawdusty ring under a big top in a field outside Stroud as several rare-breed chickens wander freely around boxes and down ramps. They are the comic stars of the summer 2017 show, and Emma is coaxing them to walk insouciantly around the ring while she plays the early-morning show on Radio 1.

It’s the chickens’ favourite station. There seems to be something about its longueurs, combined with the playlist, that gets them going – if that’s the word. They really do respond to the voices and songs. “It’s a bit painful, training,” Emma observes, as she moves a little tray of worms into position as a lure. “It’s a bit like watching paint dry sometimes. It’s all about repetition.”

Beyond the big top, a valley folds into limestone hills covered in wild parsley and the beginnings of elderblossom. Over the radio, Adele Roberts (weekdays, from 4am) hails her listeners countrywide. “Hello to Denzel, the happy trucker going north on the M6. And van driver Niki on the way from Norwich to Coventry, delivering all the things.” Pecking and quivering, the chickens are rather elegant, each with its fluffy, caramel-coloured legs and explosive feather bouffant, like a hat Elizabeth Taylor might have worn on her way to Gstaad in the 1970s.

Despite a spell of ennui during the new Harry Styles single, enthusiasm resumes as Adele bids “hello to Simon from Bournemouth on the M3 – he’s on his way to Stevenage delivering meat”. I don’t imagine Radio 1 could hope for a better review: to these pretty creatures, its spiel is as thrilling as opening night at the circus. Greasepaint, swags of velvet, acrobats limbering up with their proud, ironic grace. Gasps from beholders rippling wonder across the stalls.

Emma muses that her pupils learn fast. Like camels, a chicken never forgets.

“I’ve actually given up eating them,” she admits. “Last year I had only two weeks to train and it was like, ‘If they pull this off I won’t eat chicken ever again.’ And they did. So I didn’t.” 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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