Introducing the songs from “Theology” at the Silent Movie Theater Tuesday night, Sinead O’Connor wanted to be very clear about the distinctions between how the word “Jah” is used: “The Glory of Jah,” she said, refers specifically to the Rastafarian deity; elsewhere, she uses it in a more ecumenical fashion. It’s understandable why the Irish singer would want to set things straight: In the 20 years since “The Lion and the Cobra,” her religious pronouncements have been a source of controversy. In her first Los Angeles perf in nearly a decade, there was no mistaking the sincerity of O’Connor’s faith
“Theology,” to be released next week on her That’s Why There’s Chocolate and Vanilla imprint through Koch Records, also takes pains to be understood: The songs, mostly based on Old Testament verses, are recorded twice — in spare acoustic guitar arrangements (on the disc subtitled “The Dublin Sessions”) and with a full band (“The London Sessions”).
With her head slightly tilted back, eyes lightly closed, her body language relaxed, she seemed almost transported as she performed the “Dublin” disc of her new album in its entirety (the 70-minute perf was rounded out with three older tunes). Her voice remains an astonishing instrument, steely yet delicate, imbued with such warmth and seriousness that it’s impossible for her to sing a dishonest note.
But for all the apparent joy and gratification her faith has brought her, “Theology’s” songs are a catalog of pain and suffering. Even when they’re not, as on “33,” a song that exhorts listeners to “sing sweet with shouts of joy,” and to “turn up your bass amp/Whack it up all the way,” they’re performed on tiptoes, careful not to disturb the mood. Her choice in covers is once again impeccable — Curtis Mayfield’s “We People Who Are Darker Than Blue,” is turned into a simply strummed, whispered yet ardent protest song. And Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” (from “Jesus Christ Superstar”) turns surprisingly powerful in her hands, a song of a woman whose faith has brought her to a crossroads. When she sings “I never thought it would come to this,” the emotion is right on the surface and sends shivers down the spine.
But that passion is what’s missing from the most of her show. Given this earnest, scruffy performance, backed by acoustic guitar and cello, too often the show felt like music night at Camp Selassi hosted by Sinead O’Counselor.
O’Connor plays Joe’s Pub at New York’s Public Theater June 26.