Friday, March 24, 2017

Best Songs: A Perfect Indian by Sinead O'Connor

This is one of those songs that I absolutely love though I don't fully understand the meaning of the entire song.  Part of it is the melody.  Part of it is Sinead O'Connor being an incredible vocal performer.

To me though the real grab on this song are the following lyrics.
And there I saw a young baby
A beautiful daughter was she
A face from a painting
Red cheeks and teeth aching
Her eyes like a wild Irish sea

On a table in her yellow dress
For a photograph feigned happiness
Why in my life is that the only time
That any of you will smile at me
First you need to understand the album Universal Mother where you can find this track. It has a number of songs that deal with mothers. For instance "A Perfect Indian" is followed by the song "Scorn Not His Simplicity" which deals in part with the dilemma of having a child with special needs. Sinead O'Connor does deal with the tender love of being a mother with a song like "My Darling Child" but she's much more interested it would seem in looking at motherhood from many different angles, including a mother who feels unhappy or children dealing with abuse at the hand of their mother, "Fire on Babylon."

Let's break down these lyrics above.  First we have this loving visual of a young girl.  Lyrically I find it brilliant as I can so perfectly picture the face she is describing.  The words used too are words that show a love that one feels for this child.  Then we move into the next verse.  A photograph of the girl where she is feigning happiness, and the mother feels this is the only time her child ever expresses happiness is when she is pretending to be happy.  In essence the mother feels as though she is failing this beautiful child she so adores and that this child can never love her.

This leads us to the next verse which is a bit tougher to fully understand.
I'm sailing on this terrible ocean
I've come for my self to retrieve
Too long have I been feeling like Lir's children
And there's only one way to be free
The story of the children of Lir is an interesting one but in essence it is about these children who were turned into swans. They were cursed to live in three different bodies of water for 300 years each and would only be able to break the curse if they heard the sound of a new God's bell.  While the children were swans Ireland found Christianity.  O'Connor has always been open about her strong faith and has even talked about Christianity helping her deal with many of the demons in her life, like dealing with the child abuse she suffered.

So in this song we have a mother who feels she is failing, feels her child cannot love her and is coming to save herself by turning to God.  It's an interesting song and something you just don't see people dealing with much on musical albums and I think helps to show just what a brilliant talent Sinead O'Connor is.

I would recommend giving Universal Mother a listen if you haven't.  I know this isn't the most upbeat song and so far the two songs I've written about are dealing with darker topics, but brilliant songs like these are hard to come by and the fact that she can delve into such a deep topic with so few words is quite astonishing to me.  Similar to how I felt about "Ludlow Street."


  1. This is a fascinating post, and I'd never paid a lick of attention to this song, though I had this album for a while so must've heard it several times.

    And I want to say something here that is honestly not a criticism but just an observation about art. I think it's interesting that we (as a species) tend to think something along the lines of the above lyric is really rich and meaningful. But if Sinead O'Connor's lyric went ...

    I am a mother,
    and I feel I am failing
    Why can my child not love me?
    My only salvation is turning to God

    ... and that was the entire song, maybe repeated once or twice, we'd likely think it was pretty much nothing. A lot of the Psalms, for example, sound like that (at least in the English-translation versions I can read), and they often fall flat to me. But isn't that curious? Why am I more moved by a puzzle with a point tucked inside it than I am by a simple, logical declaration of the point itself? I am thankful that Jesus (and many of the Psalmists) seemed to anticipate this block and worked often in parables. This is why all of this is not a criticism--it just seems to be the way we are often or at least sometimes wired.

    For what it's worth, the sleepier I get, the less patience I have for art puzzles. More and more, the music I'm interested in is, on one hand, pop songs with little lyrical ambiguity (Heard it from a friend, whooo/heard it from a friend, whooo/heard it from another/you've been messing arou-ound) or, on the other, instrumental stuff that is totally up to me to net out meaning with only some clues of album context or title (for example, "Alabama" by John Coltrane). But while I might be trending in that direction, still today, if I'm drafting one of these "best songs" posts, I'm probably going to write about something along the lines of "Tangled Up In Blue."

    1. Something puzzle-ish like that.

    2. I don't know I think simplistic lyrics can be just as appreciated and just as beautiful. What I love so much about Tracey Thorn are her no nonsense lyrics.

      Now and then
      Do you wash your hands of me again?
      Wish me anywhere but home
      Drunk and on the end of your phone

      That's about as simple as it can get and yet it is so rich in what it conveys. I think the lyric here from Sinead that really gets me about the picture of her daughter is also pretty simple. It's the whole Lir's children thing that is a bit iffy and for that I've always assumed in her mind it made a perfect connection.

      Perhaps when we need those more obtuse lyrics are when we are dealing with more complex ideas like suicide or giving your life over to God. Lir's children brings a lot of stuff with it that would be hard to express in a few words.

      One thing Russian poets used to do in the 20's and perhaps still do is use double meanings of words for adding complexity to a meaning in a poem. Like the opening to the Smiths song "How Soon is Now."

      I am the son
      and the heir
      of a shyness that is criminally vulgar
      I am the son and heir
      of nothing in particular

      Or is it

      I am the sun
      and the air
      of a shyness that is criminally vulgar
      I am the sun and air
      of nothing in particular

      Both fit the song and both give it different meanings and so depending on how you are hearing it the song can have a totally different feel. If he is the son and heir then these are things he has inherited and so no fault of his own. If he is the sun and air then he is the creator of these things and all the blame would rest on him.

      I miss going to college discussion classes sometimes. Thank goodness for Sunday school.

  2. Was listening to this song last night and thought about the other side of the story of Lir's children. The children do make it back as humans but are then 900 years old and die. So perhaps the only way they escape is through death is what Sinead is saying.