What’s in Your Head?
Dolores O’Riordan of The Cranberries performs at the Sydney Entertainment Centre in Australia in March 2012. Photo by Eva Rinaldi.
The title of this post is taken from a line in the 1994 song “Zombie”, written by Dolores O’Riordan and performed by her and her band mates in The Cranberries, namely Noel Hogan, Mike Hogan, and Fergal Lawler, on their album No Need to Argue. She wrote the song in response to news of an Irish Republican Army (IRA) bombing in 1993 that killed two children and injured dozens of bystanders. The zombies of the song are those emotionally hollow, walking dead who will not let go of old political grudges and slights, and persist in their violent ways without concern for whom they harm. The song exerted a large influence in pushing the warring sides in Northern Ireland toward peace. Dolores O’Riordan died unexpectedly Monday at a hotel in London, where she was staying while she worked on a short recording session. She was 46.
The original music video of “Zombie”, which has made an enormous impression around the world since its release in 1994.
The notable thing about Ms. O’Riordan’s singing voice, besides her range, her clear enunciation in an Irish accent, and her use of keening and wailing, was her honest, unaffected vocal presence. There are so many recording tricks available to music producers now that things like a poor, thin voice can be masked with production and electronic effects, and the lyrics can be lost in all of it, though for some songs and performers listeners may not care about that. But while The Cranberries and their producers, notably Stephen Street for the early albums, took advantage of such effects as layering Ms. O’Riordan’s voice with multiple recordings, they never appeared to do so in an effort to disguise a lack of talent, but in the interest of adding depth and harmony to a song. Listening to her sing in settings where no recording gimmicks were available confirms that sense. The tremolo in her voice when she sings parts of “Linger” is all from her and her talent and her capacity for investing emotionally in the lyrics she wrote.
A 2012 visit to the NPR studios showcased the quality of Dolores O’Riordan’s voice and the musicianship of The Cranberries. The set list of five songs from first to last was comprised of “Linger”, “Tomorrow”, “Ode to My Family”, “Zombie”, and “Raining in My Heart”.
Something Else, the last album Dolores O’Riordan and The Cranberries made, was a 2017 collection of some of their hits along with a few new songs, all done acoustically with the accompaniment of the Irish Chamber Orchestra. For almost any other rock band such a presentation might come across as a pretentious, formulaic repackaging done primarily to generate revenue by capitalizing on past success. The Cranberries could get away with it because they were unassuming musicians surprised by their own success, whose sincere desire was to record an album of something genuinely new for themselves and for their fans. The songs they crafted were their own style, despite the pigeonholing common in the music business, where styles are called grunge or pop or folk or rock. They were some of all those things, not wholly invested in any one style. They were who they were (and remain, of course, while three of the four band mates live), young people from working class families in and around Limerick, Ireland, without grand desires to upend the world of music, which they did not do in any event. No matter. They worked steadily at crafting some great music while saying worthwhile things in their tunes, and the Irish songbird Dolores O’Riordan was not just a singer and guitarist and songwriter for the band, but an exemplar for them and us of a true original.