Why nothing compares to 'Nothing Compares 2 U'...
Those choral synths. The black turtleneck. Her shaved head. The tears that fall on cue. But most of all, that voice.
After yesterday’s news that Irish singer and musician Shuhada' Sadaqat, known professionally as Sinéad O'Connor, had died aged 56, let’s take a look back at what made her most famous song so unique.
The story of ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ starts with Prince. The ‘Purple Rain’ singer and songwriter penned the original version in a short studio session in 1984.
In a flurry, Prince created the entire song from scratch, writing the lyrics in a bedroom adjoining the studio. Two theories exist as to who his version refers to. It’s either about Sandy Scipioni, Prince’s housekeeper who’d suddenly quit. Or it might be about his friend Jerome Benton, who’d just broken up with his fiancée.
Although we’ll likely never know who the true inspiration behind it was, Prince’s genius songwriting was apparent from the demo. Comparatively stripped back by the glamorous star’s standards, his original version still features all of the hallmarks of his style. Guitars shred intermittently, saxophones solo, and Prince’s chameleonic vocal quivers act more as a distraction than to emphasise.
Much like Leonard Cohen’s masterpiece ‘Hallelujah’ only rising to prominence after Jeff Buckley’s haunting cover, Prince’s original wouldn’t make a mark straight away. In fact, Prince was enjoying the hype of his recent ‘Purple Rain’ success so much, he figured the song wouldn’t work at all as a solo release.
Instead, he passed it onto The Family, a band he’d formed and wrote the songs for without supplying vocals. St. Paul, The Family’s lead singer took on vocal duties. This time, the song is more stripped back and features Susannah Melvoin on background vocals.
Released on The Family’s only album in 1985, ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ was passed over and the project floundered. In another world, that would have been the end of the song.
A new take by Sinéad O'Connor
O’Connor was riding a wave of success after her first album ‘The Lion and The Cobra’ received international acclaim. For her sophomore effort, her manager Fachtna O'Ceallaigh suggested a cover of the song.
Once again, it’s hard to know exactly who is the subject behind the song’s bittersweet message. O’Connor and O’Ceallaigh were in a relationship at the time which was falling apart. At the same time, the lyrics referring to a mother have been assumed to resonate with the singer’s complicated relationship with her own mother who had died in 1985.
Just like Prince, O’Connor didn’t take long to perfect the song. Recorded in one take, she nailed the vocals with uncompromising earnestness.
Listening to it back, it’s clear why this is the definitive version of ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’. The whole thing is stripped back to only the essential parts, allowing O’Connor’s haunting vocals to resonate over all else.
While the men turned to the emphatic, O’Connor plays with restraint. Her absolute authenticity — a defining feature of her career — resonates. She is quiet and subdued in reflective lines, rises in self-knowing strength for moments of power, then resonates with absolute conviction when she reaches that chorus line.
The video is equally as astonishing. Directed by John Maybury, there are shots of O’Connor wandering through Paris but they are subordinate to the main event. O’Connor in a black turtleneck, her shaven head the only thing illuminated against a black background. Like the uncompromised lips highlighted in her fellow countryman Samuel Beckett’s play ‘Not I’, O’Connor has nowhere to hide in the video as she stares down the camera.
It’s classic O’Connor. Her beautiful knowing face penetrates through your soul as you watch her reflect on the song’s lost relationship. When the song reaches its climax, as if on cue, two tears roll down her cheeks. There’s no artifice. Singing the lines about her mother caused her to break down in real time.
She may not have written the song herself, but the emotion of it was all too real for her. It still is for us too.