641. ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’, by Sinéad O’Connor

Just four weeks, and three number one singles, into the new decade and the 1990s have their first iconic moment…

Nothing Compares 2 U, by Sinéad O’Connor (her 1st and only #1)

4 weeks, from 28th January – 25th February 1990

First things first, I hate overuse of the word ‘iconic’. Yass! Slay! Dresses are ‘iconic’, memes are ‘iconic’, everything’s bloody ‘iconic’. But I think the term is valid here. From the sustained opening note, to the Orwellian opening line: It’s been seven hours and fifteen days… the song grabs you, makes you sit up and listen.

And that is pretty much all down to Sinead O’Connor’s vocal performance. She hits every note perfectly – the soft ones, the angry ones, the ones you don’t expect. Some favourite lines: I went to the doctor, And guess what he told me, Guess what he told me… or All the flowers that you planted mama… Or the way Nothing can take away these blues… hits a really bluesy note at the end. To tell the truth, without O’Connor’s heroics, with a different, less committed singer, this could be a flat, maybe even dull song. The synths are slow, the beat is steady, with a trip-hop edge that will become ubiquitous as this decade goes on.

The most famous of her vocal tricks has to be the key-change in the title line: No-Thing compares, To you… It’s the one hook that ultimately sells the entire song. But we can’t pretend that this song did well on vocals alone. There’s the famous video, another iconic aspect of this whole business (I promise that’s the last time I’ll use that word), in which O’Connor remains in close-up, her face strikingly cat-like, head shaved, a tear rolling down either cheek. (The tears were unplanned, and brought on by the ‘mama’ line, her mum having died in a car crash several years earlier.)

‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ was famously written by Prince, though his version was never released. O’Connor’s version was also famously disliked by its author, perhaps because it outperformed pretty much every song he ever released. It was #1 in thirteen countries, and Top 10 in countless others, overshadowing everything that she has done since. I’d never heard the Prince original, which was finally released in 2018, and it’s nowhere near as good – cluttered with fiddly guitar and a wild sax solo, completely missing the sparse beauty of this definitive version.

Is it surprising that this song did so well? I say that because it is unremittingly miserable: the singer counts down the hours since her break-up, listing all the things that won’t help her get over her loss, all the flowers that have wilted since. And yet, I asked a silly question, really. All the best ballads aren’t about love; they’re about lost love: ‘Without You’, ‘The Winner Takes It All’… Misery hits home. It’s the hopeful, positive ones that often lack an edge: ‘Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love for You’, or ‘Hello’, to name but two.

Sinead O’Connor wasn’t a complete unknown when this, the second single from her second album came out; but none of her earlier, or her subsequent releases, made the Top 10. Her career in the US ended abruptly when she ripped up a picture of the pope on ‘Saturday Night Live’ as a protest against child abuse in the Catholic church, and she has courted controversy in statements about her sexuality, her religion, and her views on Irish politics. She is an eccentric, a contrarian, one who is hard to define. Except everyone can agree that her biggest hit kickstarted the 1990s, and remains one of the decade’s most iconic (sorry) songs.


12 thoughts on “641. ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’, by Sinéad O’Connor

  1. I HATE this song. Absolutely detest it … right up there with Whitney Houston’s ‘I Will Always Love You.’

    Come back Stock Aitken & Waterman … I didn’t mean what I said a few posts back! 😀 😀

    • Going to have to respectfully disagree…! The difference between this and the Whitney song you mention is that you (well, I) believe the emotions here. Whereas Whitney seems to think that loud = heartfelt

  2. This still looks and sounds stunning more than 30 years on. Head and shoulders above all the dross that topped the charts back then, and still does. I think you could call this one – iconic 😊

  3. Prince HATED anyone covering any of his songs. The Foo Fighters covered one of his songs and he was so pissed he covered one of theirs during the Superbowl…they loved it lol…he thought the same would happen that happened with this song I guess.

    I was never a big fan of the song but she did it well…Prince’s isn’t too bad. Now someone mentioned the Houston song…oh geez…those damn vocal gymnastics got on my nerves…I’d take Dolly’s version any day of that song.

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