Now in 2005, thirteen years after she stepped back from the brink of superstardom, Sinead has finally made the record towards which she has been building her whole career. In April of this year, she travelled alone to Kingston, Jamaica to record her brand new record, Throw Down Your Arms, at the world famous Tuff Gong and Anchor Studios. It’s a collection of roots songs, which have inspired Sinead in her life and work for the past fifteen years. The legendary reggae rhythm section of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare produced the album and many of the musicians who played on the original record were enlisted to give added authenticity to the sound.
The title comes from one of the tracks on the record, originally written and performed by Studio One legend Winston Rodney, a.k.a Burning Spear, who also contribute four other cuts: Jah Nuh Dead, Marcus Garvey, Door Peep and He Prayed. Spear’s recurrent themes - the living God on earth, the role of Pan Africanist Marcus Mosiah Garvey and personal and social redemption - were a huge influence on Sinead and echoes of his earthy delivery can be heard in her own vocal style. But these tracks are tributes, not imitations. Just as the Irish songs on Sean Nos Nua were subtly jamaicanised so Sinead has added in her own Irish instrumentation to certain tracks on this record. While staying true to the composer’s vision Sinead has also stamped each of the tracks with that distinctively soulful roar which has electrified her fans all over the world for nearly two decades. As Robbie observed to nobody in particular after hearing Sinead lay down a particularly goose-bump inducing vocal; ‘forget the originals baby, these ARE the originals.’
Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than on a track written by one of Sly and Robbie’s former collaborators, Peter Tosh. On Downpressor Man, Sinead’s voice is one moment a high plaintive wail, the next a venomous snarl. Robbie’s virtuoso guitar playing adds to the rich sonic brew. On Curly Locks, the Lee Perry track, her chameleon-like delivery changes character again, this time becoming a sensual whisper. ‘Which one will be your choice’ she breathes, already knowing the answer.
Two of the songs on the record have marked pivotal moments in Sinead’s life. Vampire, first recorded by Devon Irons, has a special resonance for Sinead. It was this track that she danced to after her ordination in Lourdes, France in 1999. With its menacing, mantra-like chant it is in fact a type of Rastafarian spell, which aims to cast out evil. War, similarly, has changed the course of her life and career, and, in this context, needs no introduction.
Jah Prophet has Arise, from Sinead’s favourite band, Israel Vibration, is maybe the funkiest cut on the album. Up to now in her career Sinead has always recorded her own backing vocals. Here her sepulchral chanting is backed by three Jamaican women as they sing in unison of biblical retribution.
Throughout her career Sinead has always connected unbelievably with the sad numbers and on Buju Banton’s Untold Stories, a heartbreaking tale of poverty and social hypocrisy, she delivers a searingly emotive performance. The centrepiece on the whole album, and Sinead’s favourite track is Y Mas Gan, a track first released by the roots trio, the Abyssinians. With its dread slow rhythm it is essentially it is a Rastafarian hymn, written partly in Amharic, which pledges devotion to God. One of the lyrics, ‘if we can’t be good, we’ll be careful’ was an alternative title for the record and sums up Sinead’s courageous, almost pugnacious, approach to her life and faith.
Sinead is already writing her own collection of spiritual songs to be entitled Theology, for release some time in 2007. In the meantime she will put out Throw Down Your Arms this September on her own label, That’s why there’s Chocolate and Vanilla (a favourite expression of her deceased manager Steve Fargnoli). As she pulls together the threads from over a decade of work Sinead will this autumn, for the first time in eight years, tour in North America. ‘The shows are the whole point’, she told me. ‘I can’t wait to be onstage with Sly and Robbie. I want to pass on the teachings of the Rastafarai movement, sing the songs and have fun. It will be better than mass.”
Some albums, as Van Morrison once said, demand to be made. Throw Down Your Arms is the record that Sinead has been building towards for fifteen years, and perhaps the finest work of career. It is the human voice used as an instrument of spiritual healing. Irish philosopher Mark Patrick Hederman wrote: ‘Singing is a way of proclaiming a better world, a refusal to give in to the grimness of the past’. It is Sinead’s hope that people find comfort and inspiration in these songs, as she does, and that, in making this record, she has gone some small way toward rescuing God from religion.