I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got
Why Sinéad O’Connor’s Sophomore Album is My Go-To Fall Soundtrack
I heard I Do No Want What I Haven’t Got for the first time in the fall of 2019. I saw the CD in a thrift store and bought it on impulse. Fresh off the heels of the dissolution of a relationship and the death of a loved one, I instantly connected with the album’s themes of heartbreak, pain and grief.
And yet, I couldn’t help but wonder: As a lifelong rock history nerd and music fan, how had it taken me this long to listen to Sinéad O’Connor’s music?
Sinéad O’Connor was at the apex of her popularity in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Born in Ireland in 1966, her first album, The Lion And The Cobra, was recorded when she was only 20. During its recording, she was in a relationship with her drummer, John Reynolds, and already pregnant with their first child. The album introduced the world to one of the first female anti-pop stars, charting internationally.
By then, O’Connor was already seen in the media as a controversial figure, a bald lady screaming. Even though O’Connor and Reynolds had married and were raising their son, Jake, while touring the world, not all was well between the two. During those years, O’Connor had an affair with her manager, Fachtna O’Ceallaigh, with her relationship with Reynolds on the brink of dissolution.
O’Connor channeled all of her emotion from both her public and personal life into her second album. Released in March 1990, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got was nothing short of a global sensation. It was named the second-best album of the year by NME and was nominated for four Grammys. Today, it is included in Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
The album was a success in no small part to O’Connor’s cover of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” a song originally written by Prince and performed by his side-project, The Family. While this song is no doubt a tear-jerking break-up anthem, the rest of O’Connor’s original songs on the album stand up to it. O’Connor’s lyrics take on the pain of her conflicted relationships with the men in her life, as well as the abuse she suffered as a child at the hands of her mother, who passed away four years prior. Made up of ten tracks, I view it as an album in three acts, the first of which introduces the listener to O’Connor’s unique sound and style.
The first three songs are unusually slow, a sure act of defiance to commercial sequencing at the time that mandated singles be placed at the start of a record. The album opener “Feels So Different” is a quiet, nearly 7-minute track backed only by a chorus of strings. “I Am Stretched On Your Grave,” a musical version of a 17th-century Irish poem translated into English, features a forceful drum loop and wicked fiddle solo; as one YouTube commenter put it, it sounds like a cross between “James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” and an Irish jig.” “Three Babies,” another soft-sounding yet lyrically forceful track, follows next, with O’Connor showing off her talent for singing over an acoustic guitar. It’s a singular start to an album, with 18 minutes of music passing before O’Connor really pulls out her big guns.
The middle section of I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got is by far its strongest. These are the songs on the album that made it go down as an all-time great. “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” the only true dance-pop song on the album, is a refreshing change from the three that precede it, and one of my personal favourites.
And then there’s the fifth song. While many consider “Nothing Compares 2 U” to be the album’s best song, in truth, the most heartbreaking song on the album comes right before it. “Black Boys On Mopeds” is a slow ballad with O’Connor’s voice accompanied only by an acoustic guitar, an anti-England protest song with the chorus, “England's not the mythical land of Madame George and roses / It's the home of police who kill Black boys on mopeds.”
Although it doesn’t mention him by name, the song was written about Colin Roache, a 21-year-old Black man who died of a gunshot wound after being shot inside a London police station in 1983. While his family and the public believed he was shot by police, the incident was covered up, with the coroner’s report stating he had died by suicide. O’Connor’s album sleeve features a picture of his parents on the inside, with an inscription below that reads, “God’s place is in the world; but the world is not God’s place.” To this day, there has been no justice for Roache’s family.
“Nothing Compares 2 U” follows after, a one-two gut-punch of sadness that only the most cold-hearted could stand to hear back to back and not start weeping. In spite of its emotion, it is the most conventional-sounding song musically on the album for the time period. The single was no doubt aided by its iconic video of her in a black turtleneck on a black background, forcing the viewer to simply watch the pain in O’Connor’s face as she sings. At the 1990 MTV Video Music Awards, O’Connor won three awards, tying with pop superstar Madonna for most awards of the night in spite of their vastly different musical sounds and public personas.
The last third of the album is a return to the minimalist style of the opening songs, although this time with the brutality of the lyrics turned up to 11. “Jump In The River” is a straightforward alternative song with a traditional rock guitar and ‘80s drum sound, but it’s the last three songs that knock it out of the park. “You Cause As Much Sorrow,” “Last Day Of Our Acquaintance” and “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got” are a holy trinity of anthems for scorned and vengeful women.
“You Cause As Much Sorrow” is directed towards O’Connor’s late mother who was abusive to her; of their relationship, O’Connor sings, “You cause as much sorrow dead / As you did when you were alive.” “Last Day Of Our Acquaintance,” written about O’Connor’s affair with her manager, O’Ceallaigh, is an acoustic break-up ballad, arguably one of the most satisfying of all time. While the song starts slowly, about a couple meeting to finalize their separation, by the end it transforms into a powerful fuck-you to O’Connor’s former lover. The title track, a nearly 6-minute song featuring only vocals without any musical backing, closes the album, with O’Connor’s emotional arc complete.
While the album was a massive success at the time, it is not frequently mentioned in the history of 90s alternative rock. This is potentially due to the fact that she was a mainstream singer. Although I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got is an alternative album, it doesn’t fit within the genres of college rock, grunge or riot grrrl, all of which dominate the telling of early ‘90s rock music history. Likewise, for an internationally best-selling album on Rolling Stone’s list of all-time greatest, it has a scant four paragraphs on its Wikipedia entry. Very little has been written about O’Connor by contemporary music writers in comparison to similar-sounding musicians of the time.
This is no doubt due to O’Connor’s public image at the time. O’Connor had already been labeled as threatening, difficult and controversial to the public by the media. This was in no doubt furthered by the fact that despite being nominated for four Grammys for this record, including Album of the Year, O’Connor withdrew her nominations, refusing to be awarded by a critical body she didn’t believe in.
And then, on October 3, 1992, O’Connor was the musical guest on Saturday Night Live. During an a cappella version of “War” by Bob Marley, she ripped up a picture of Pope John Paul II, to protest the sexual violence against children committed by priests in the Catholic church. The network received more than 4000 calls about the incident, with most decrying it as obscenity. When O’Connor performed publicly two weeks later, she was booed off-stage. It was the de facto end of her popularity and musical career.
While she was an unfair victim of public attitudes at the time, O’Connor’s legacy remains tarnished and buried in dominant accounts of ‘90s rock music history. If a singer committed a similar act of protest today, it would most likely still be controversial, but they would not be driven off the face of the Earth in the same way O’Connor was. Reading YouTube comments for the songs from the album is heartbreaking, with many fans praising her for her vocal talents, describing the comfort her music has given them and saying she deserves much more public recognition for being so ahead of her time, musically and politically.
O’Connor’s influence is still felt in music today. Her-bleeding-heart-on-the-sleeve confessional lyrics no doubt impacted later ‘90s singer-songwriters like Fiona Apple, Cat Power and Ani Difranco. Likewise, the minimalist pop-rock sound that has reigned for the past decade through artists like Lorde, Billie Eilish, Angel Olsen, Sharon Van Etten and Phoebe Bridgers has no doubt been a result of groundwork laid by O’Connor in the early ‘90s (both Van Etten and Bridgers have even covered “Black Boys On Mopeds” in recent years).
Everyone needs a Fall Emotional Support Album. I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got is mine. I return to it every year like clockwork. The moodiness of the album is a great accompaniment to the season, a time of shedding, death and rebirth. Once the leaves begin to change and the temperatures drop to the single digits, all I want to do is light a candle and weep to O’Connor’s heartbreaking vocals and lyrics.
I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got showed the world the future in 1990. Three decades later, we’re still catching up.
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