“You have seen nothing yet” claims Sinead O’Brien on single ‘Girlkind’. Yet we have seen an awful lot of this kind of thing in the last few years. With the counterclaim that we’ve reached “landfill sprechgesang” already made, what novelty then does Sinead offer on her debut album? Why should we listen to another new artist talking, rather than singing, over the top of some indie guitar music?
A debut it may be, but Sinead has been around for as long as any of these other acts, releasing music since 2018. Less abstract (but somehow more obscure) than Dry Cleaning, more penetrating than Yard Act, with a far more interesting band than the previous two (compare the guitar work on ‘Holy Country’ and ‘Like Culture), and more literary-artistic than Black Country New Road, without the same pretentiousness. Sinead achieves all this and more on Time Bend and Break the Bower.
Let’s get the literary part out of the way with some lazy comparisons. With allusions to Dylan Thomas (“do not go gentle” in ‘Pain Is The Fashion Of The Spirit’) and Cormac McCarthy (“no place for old men” in ‘End of Days”) and Dante on ‘Go Again’, there is something, in the best possible way, of the same A-Level Drama and English Lit student as Kate Bush. One day I’ll stop comparing everyone to her. But a dramatic and modernist poetic performance is exactly what Time Bend and Break the Bower is. Even the title itself sounds like the name of a lost William Faulkner novel or, indeed, a quotation lifted from O’Brien’s compatriots James Joyce or W. B. Yeats.
On then to the music itself. I’ve already mentioned ‘Girlkind’. If having to make an effort to enjoy music through its lyrics isn’t your thing then this song is your way in; it’s the song that’s most like a song with Sinead almost singing at points. Likewise, ‘Spare for My Size, Me’ is the album’s main point of departure away from the band’s core sound. Moroder/Oakey style synths dominate this track, later perfectly punctuated with Rapture-like dance punk guitar. Still it is in her poetic pomp where she really shines. ‘Holy Country’ is eerie and layered with mythology. Academics could pore over lyrics for hours in debate about its meaning. ‘There Are Good Times Coming’ is a homage to the very sound of words (I do love a bit of alliteration): “Crab claws / Criss cross across the railroad tracks / Crabs claws”. What does it mean? Is it good? Who knows. I just know I’m enjoying it and for me that’s all that matters.
It may be unkind to suggest that you need to be really into words to enjoy Sinead’s music, but there may not be enough of the musical side here to keep everyone’s interest. While I’m mostly positive about Time Bend and Break the Bower, I don’t love all of it. But there is still something hugely compelling about these same words, the sound of the band and O’Brien’s delivery that keeps me coming back, regardless of whether or not I was required to so I could write this review.
Not all speaky-singy bands are as good as others and question marks remain about what some will do next. The style shows no signs of going away just yet so it’s encouraging that there is still enough scope in the sub-genre for new, creative approaches. Time Bend and Break the Bower demonstrates just that.
Words by James Spearing