She Who Dwells in the Secret Place of the Most High Shall Abide Under the Shadow of the Almighty (yeah, it's a mouthful, but at least it's not Fiona Apple's monolith), was reportedly Sinead O' Connor's final album -- it wasn't -- as she seeks another way of life as a spiritual pilgrim, O'Connor delved deep into her rare, B-side, unreleased, and compilation tracks and gives listeners a live album to boot over two discs. Released stateside on Vanguard, this is, despite its disparate nature, one of the most satisfying recordings she's ever delivered -- the previous year's Sean-Nós Nua, her traditional album, was a knockout and perhaps her finest studio moment, but it went unnoticed here because Americans can't seem to forgive O'Connor for exercising her right to free speech (the audience at Bob Dylan's 30th anniversary concert should be especially ashamed). The studio sides released on disc one include her collaborations with everyone from Adrian Sherwood to the Asian Dub Foundation to Massive Attack to Roger Eno. Her covers of Dan Penn's "Do Right Woman," Boudleaux Bryant's "Love Hurts," and the B-52's' "Ain't It a Shame" are highly original, deeply moving, and satisfying. Her originals, such as "No Matter How Hard I Try," "Love Is Ours," "This Is a Rebel Song," and "Emma's Song," are eclipsed only by her readings of traditional Gaelic material. Her arrangements and those of her collaborators are top-flight. There are 19 cuts in all on disc one, and not a moribund moment in the bunch.
The live show on disc two is riveting; it is revelatory for its deep emotional commitment to the performance of the material at hand. On material such as "Molly Malone," "I Am Stretched on Your Grave," and "You Made Me the Thief of Your Heart," Celtic, reggae, and modern dance music come together in a singular mix of O'Connor's own design. Bottom line: it kicks ass. And the performance of Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U" blows away the studio version with its searing sense of loss and grief. O'Connor's professionalism as a bandleader is not to be eclipsed by anyone. This 13-track set was simply the best record of 2003 at the time of its release. Her manner of getting inside the material is uncanny as she transforms herself with that gorgeous voice from track to track. Her protagonists and characters are people of this world to be sure, but they are also angels and haunted spirits, children, and broken lovers who have been laid waste by their honesty, much like the singer herself. O'Connor is easily the most misunderstood artist of her time, and her willingness to allow her restless spirit to seek happiness and indulge her emotions clearly makes people -- particularly Americans -- very uncomfortable and angry. If you cannot get past the person to appreciate the voice, it's your loss, as this is quite simply a presentation of pop culture that translates itself into high (yet very accessible) art for anyone with ears that are open.