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Dolores O’Riordan’s Big, Big Love

The lead singer of The Cranberries, dead at 46, was both very quiet and very loud.


The Cranberries album No Need To Argue was one of the few CDs I owned as a kid, along with the debut by Catatonia, another rock band led by a cool girl with a strong accent (my beloved The Best of Boney M. was on tape). I wore No Need to Argue out in my Sony Discman on long car rides, drowning out my family and gazing out at gray English skies through a Volvo backseat window. I was too young to understand alternative music or counterculture, but was just old enough to enjoy melancholy for its own sake. I wanted to ignore my family, not think up odes to them.

But mothers and fathers and children were a continual theme for Dolores O’Riordan, the lead singer of The Cranberries who died on Monday at the age of 46. There’s a line in “Ode to My Family” that goes, “My father, my father / He liked me, oh, he liked me / Does anyone care?” In “I Can’t Be With You,” she sang, “I wanted to be the mother of your child.” In “Dreaming My Dreams”: “Into my faith, you and your baby.” The Cranberries’ songs were so powerfully sad that O’Riordan’s mommy-schtick seemed counterintuitive. What’s all this talk of families doing in between the rip and the roar of “Zombie,” the band’s breakout hit and one of the great protest songs of the 1990s?

Describing The Cranberries remains a challenge today, 26 years after the release of their first single “Dreams.” We all remember them, but they are so tinged by the dim atmosphere of nostalgia that it’s hard to make them out through the fog of our past selves. Still, something of their continued appeal lies in that juxtaposition between the soft and the hard, which was sonically mirrored in the contrasts of O’Riordan’s voice, both gentle as cashmere and sharp as a razor. What I can see now, which I couldn’t then, is that The Cranberries are a band of contrasts.  

The genius of “Zombie” is both musical and lyrical. The song is about the 1993 IRA bombings in Warrington, England, that killed two very young boys. The lyrics, however, do not focus on the boys themselves or the bombers. In 1995 O’Riordan told Vox magazine that she had seen one of the mothers on TV, and “felt so sad for her, that she’d carried him for nine months, been through all the morning sickness, the whole thing, and some ... prick, some airhead who thought he was making a point, did that.” 

So “Zombie” depicts the impact of terrorism as miasmatic, an emotional experience that hangs darkly over an entire community. And when she sings “But you see, it’s not me / It’s not my family / In your head, in your head, they are fighting,” O’Riordan is talking about the way that politics are fictions carried around in the minds of people. “It’s not Ireland,” she said to Vox, “It’s some idiots living in the past, living for a dream.” But mothers and children—they are real.

Musically, “Zombie” encapsulates the great Cranberries effect, which relies not only on their mournful guitar or O’Riordan’s voice, but on the play between the two. There’s the quiet/loud technique, which Nirvana popularized after they stole it from Pixies. There’s the wall-of-guitar sound, which connects The Cranberries back to their gloomy My Bloody Valentine roots. But “Zombie” sounded modern when it came out, because that wall was metallic, almost industrial.

And then there’s O’Riordan’s voice. Obituaries of the singer invariably refer to her “lilting” voice, sung in her Limerick accent. (It’s important to remember that she’s from Limerick, if only to contextualize the time O’Riordan was draggd off a flight and drunkenly screamed, “I’m the Queen of Limerick! I’m an icon!” at an Irish policeman whom she then headbutted.) By “lilting,” these writers mean the English sense of sing-songiness, which has been in currency since the sixteenth century. But lilting can also describe a specific type of Irish traditional song, also called “mouth music.”

O’Riordan is not lilting when she does that sharp break from chest voice to head voice in the second syllable of the word “zombie.” She’s actually yodeling. The quick pitch changes in O’Riordan’s yodel, paired with the exaggerated way that she forms her vowels and consonants, set her voice squarely in the sean-nós style of traditional Irish folksinging. Sean-nós is almost always sung without accompaniment, however. “Zombie” is as accompanied as a vocal line can be.

O’Riordan had three children with Duran Duran’s tour manager Don Burton, whom she married in Tipperary having driven a horse cart to the venue. She wore a white dress to her wedding, though it was transparent. From the oscillating texture of her voice to her conflicted identity, O’Riordan was composed of contrasts. She was a rock hero whose lyrics were motherly. She was a grieving, engaged citizen who insisted that what is real isn’t ideology or slogans, but what we know and feel. Love is what’s important, not politics. Love can be both hard and soft, so that’s how she sang it.