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From left: Stephens, O'Connor (Getty Images), and Jones (AP)

Girls gone mild

Music | Stephens, Jones, and O'Connor make statements with new albums

Issue: "Trouble in Egypt," June 2, 2012

If Shannon Stephens', Norah Jones', and Sinéad O'Connor's latest albums are bellwethers, politicians seeking the "women's vote" this year face a daunting task. From family matters off the soccer-mom radar to existential concerns beyond legislative redress, the songs make clear that women don't live by campaign promises alone.

Stephens debuted in 2000 with an eponymous release on Sufjan Stevens' then little-known Asthmatic Kitty Records. Blending the acoustic melancholy of Nick Drake and the understated intensity of Linda Thompson, she seemed poised for whatever the "big time" might mean for a serious, 21st-century Christian singer-songwriter.

Instead, she married, became a mother, started a gardening business, and for nearly a decade kept her nose to the workaday grindstone. When she returned with The Breadwinner in 2009, she was singing of dirty dishes, balancing budgets, and connubial oases.

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On Pull It Together, her focus hasn't changed so much as shifted. Her guitars of choice are now electric, and she still worries about being able to be a good mother after "working all day and worrying all the night." But she also acknowledges in "Girl" and "Buddy Up to the Bully" that her daughter will have to grow up and fend for herself.

Her identification with Icarus in "Wax and Feathers" gives her an even bigger perspective. The danger, Stephens implies, lies not in flying too close to the sun but in allowing the "injustice" and "misfortune" of "disbelief" to cast one like a sling-shot stone to the sea. And when in "Out of Sight" she asks God to write her checks because "He has all the money" and, after all, He made her, she brings the complaints of both David and Job up to date.

The complaints of Norah Jones on Little Broken Hearts (Blue Note) are microcosmic by comparison-namely, how to get over being kicked to the romantic curb for a woman as young as Jones herself was when she became an overnight sensation 10 years ago. Produced by Danger Mouse (the latest go-to guy for rootsy acts intent on modernizing their sound), she has exchanged her jazzy backup for an ominous electronica that subtly serrates her scorned-woman fury.

The change in musical direction was probably at least in part market driven. All of Jones' albums have gone platinum at least, but each has also sold approximately 50 percent less than its predecessor, turning her career into a kind of commercial Zeno's paradox.

It's the lyrics, however, that will most surprise the million-plus listeners that have stuck with her. "Never been the killing kind," she sings to her ex-flame's new love interest, "But you know I know what you did. [...] Was it a game to you? I've punished him. ... Now I've saved the best for you." That she delivers the sentiments in her trademark downy-soft voice only accentuates the threat. And, given the universality of feminine vulnerability, it could be the whisper heard 'round the world.

No female pop star of note has trafficked in vulnerability more openly than Sinéad O'Connor. And with How About I Be Me (and You Be You)? (One Little Indian), she reaches new depths (parental warning: explicit lyrics) and heights, sometimes simultaneously, playing her well-earned reputation for emotional volatility for maximum artistic worth.

"I don't want to waste the life God gave me," she insists in "Reason with Me," the title of which is just one of the album's many biblical allusions. The most potent: "V.I.P.," a song O'Connor apparently composed after reading-and pondering-Judgment Day as described by Christ in Matthew 25.


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