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  • timbisset


Updated: Nov 8, 2018

Year: 1990

UK Chart Position: 1

As a performance, this must be one of the most startling number one records of all time. As a reading of someone else’s song, the range of emotions on display – sometimes within the same line – is arresting. More than any other song I can think of, it’s feels like a portrait of the five stages of grief, only with one crucial element missing. It’s also a very unfair interpretation of the song (given what we now know about the singer) but it also makes you feel like you’re intruding on someone’s mental illness. Raw doesn’t quite cover it. And that’s before we get on to the video…

Like someone grieving, the stages are messily meshed together as she changes focus from one emotion to the next, randomly and without reason. Like an unreliable narrator, she picks and chooses what to tell us, but drops clues throughout that have the capacity to trip herself up. She starts with denial, obsessively recounting the exact time since “you took your love away,” not hinting at this stage that she has anything to do with it. There is a continuation of the denial later, but with hints that she has a part to play in the breakdown. Later still, there’s a degree of acknowledgment that “living with you baby was sometimes hard.” But here, her bargaining skills kick in, because she’s “willing to give it another try.”

However, the overriding emotions she seems to be feeling are depression and anger, often at the same time. She sleeps all day, her tears are falling, she can’t eat, she goes to see a doctor. Her complete incredulity at his response (“Guess what he told me, guess what he told me!”) indicates her inability to begin to save herself. But the anger simmers, sometimes directed at the ex (the demand to know “where did I go wrong?”), or sometimes at herself (“I can put my arms around every boy I see, but they only remind me of you.”) And like every heart that’s been broken, there’s an element on not wanting to let go, of obsessively remembering every detail, and of feeling an odd comfort in being in the depths.

The quick changes from wronged lioness to heartbroken soul are occasionally so jarring that it stops you from settling into the song completely. Sinead O’Connor takes you with her, demanding the listener understands that this isn’t any breakup. That no one had felt this pain before, and no one will again. So, there you have it. Denial, anger, bargaining, cloaked in a deep depression. What there is very little of, is acceptance.

The (visual) moment: At 3:22 “All the flowers that you planted…” TEARS WILL FALL!

In a word: Despair

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