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

DREW KELLY/NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX/EYEVINE
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Yiyun Li: Can reading help you conquer depression?

In her memoir of depression and reading, Yiyun Li speaks to all those with unquiet minds.

Most sufferers of severe depression will tell you that the condition is incommunicable: it cannot be expressed, except through metaphors, and then those, too, are pitifully inadequate. How does one talk about a great, centrifugal force that spins the self away to fragments, or towards annihilation, leaving no stable, immutable self to write about?

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (the title is a quotation from a letter by Katherine Mansfield) is a memoir of depression and reading, and the first work of non-fiction by the acclaimed Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, whose books include the prize-winning debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants, her astonishing and bleak first novel. In Dear Friend, she grapples with the question that lies at the heart of books as diverse as William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, but from the outset Li swerves away: she never once mentions depression by name, talking instead about “a difficult time”, or her mind being in “poor shape”, and about “this emptiness in me”.

A severe reluctance to talk about herself has led her to devise a way of writing about emotions in a forensically intellectual manner, subjecting each feeling to the rigours of close reading and an investigation-by-argument not a million miles from the practice of philosophers. In fact, the first chapter of the book is divided into 24 short subsections, of anything between four lines and just over a page: a collection of thoughts, observations, memories, aphoristic distillations, even propositions.

This sets the formal template for what follows: the titles of the subsequent chapters lead one to expect thematic unity, but the greater coherence comes from Li’s overarching project in Dear Friend of thinking about time. She starts out with the notion that the book “would be a way to test – to assay – thoughts about time. There was even a vision of an after, when my confusions would be sorted out.” To talk of a “before” and “after” is to acknowledge an intervening present; all posit an experience unfolding in time. But right from the start she is acutely conscious of a self-defeating task: “To assay one’s ideas about time while time remains unsettled and elusive feels futile.”

This compulsive argumentation and dissection of feelings into ever finer strands can produce the occasionally cloudy culmination, usually aphoristic or epigrammatic in style, almost always paradoxical. Even context fails to illuminate fully, for example, these sentences on Elizabeth Bowen: “‘The moment one is sad one is ordinary,’ she [Bowen] wrote. But that is not enough. The moment one feels anything one feels fatal.” Or: “To say nothing matters is to admit that everything matters.” Li’s emotions are thoughts, a pre-emptive mechanism to salvage a frangible self; perhaps this is the only way one can talk about an illness that eats the very faculty that produces thought. “As a body suffers from an auto-immune disease,” she writes, “my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.”

Slowly, a bare-bones biographical narrative emerges: an immature, unstable monster of a mother; a quiet, fatalistic and long-suffering father; episodes from a childhood in China; a career in science cast aside for writing; two stays in hospital for serious depressive episodes (we find out their exact nature only in the afterword).

But, other than the self-consuming mind, the one constant running through this ­deliberately fractured memoir, like a flowing stream whose noise is always present, sometimes near, sometimes far, is the theme of reading. Here, too, Li is original in her approach, in describing how writers speak to her unquiet mind or to the darkness at her core. Take her love of biography or writers’ correspondence. She tells us that it springs from “the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives”. It is heart-rending to read that she finds her “real context” in books: “. . . all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.”

Li is a writer who has made her name in the lyrical-realist school, producing pellucidly moving works that enrich our understanding of psychological interiority and affect, so it is not surprising to note her admiration and love for Turgenev and Chekhov, Mansfield, John McGahern, William Trevor, Stefan Zweig, Bowen. More unpredictable, at least when these first occur, are the names of Marianne Moore, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin; the Moore and Larkin connections with her life are particularly unexpected when they unfurl.

There is a beautiful and profound chapter on renouncing her mother tongue – even though Li never wrote in Chinese – and the decision to adopt English. She gives the ­penultimate chapter of her book, fittingly, to the writer who has mattered to her most: Trevor, a writer she “aspired to be”, “to see as he does”. At the end of her assay there is a sense of endurance; this book is “an experiment in establishing a truce with what cannot be changed”, a terribly beautiful gift to the reader, who will always remain locked in her own life as the author is in hers.

Neel Mukherjee’s most recent novel is “The Lives of Others” (Vintage)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit