Yesterday, amidst the many tributes and inevitable dissention over the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., a sad piece of news seemed to get buried: the death of Cranberries singer Dolores O’Riordan, at the far-too-young age of 46. The Irish vocalist not only “defined the sound of The Cranberries,” as her NPR obituary notes, she defined the sound of the 90s. Anyone who remembers the decade remembers spending a substantial part of it with Cranberries’ hits “Linger,” “Dreams,” and “Zombie” looping in their heads.
Just 18 when she auditioned for them in 1989, O’Riordan took the band from what might have been rather formulaic mopey, jangly dreampop and gave it “a smoky hue in full cry” as well as “a sweet, delicate tone that evoked centuries of Gaelic folk tradition.”
Like another recent, tragic loss from the Gen X heyday—Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell—she fully embodied passionate intensity with a voice that was an arresting force. Whether you were a fan or not, you simply had to pay attention.
Listen, for example, to the band’s 1994 protest song “Zombie,” which memorializes two boys killed the previous year in an IRA bombing. It’s a track that “sounds wildly anomalous,” writes Rob Harvilla at The Ringer, “given the other songs that made her famous.” While the “plodding rumble” and “crushing distortion” evoke any number of angsty quiet-loud anthems of the time, O’Riordan’s “was the last voice you expected to hear howling over it.” The contrast is haunting, yet the song works just as well without fuzzed-out guitars and thunderous drums, as in the orchestral MTV Unplugged version above.
The “Zombie” video offers a classic collection of 90s stylistic quirks, from Derek Jarman-inspired setpieces to the use of black and white and earnest political messaging. For us old folks, it’s an almost pure hit of nostalgia, and for the young, a nearly perfect specimen of the decade’s rock aesthetics, which included a refreshing number of famous female solo artists and frontwomen just as likely as the men to dominate rock radio and television. Indeed, it seems like the 90s may have produced more prominent female-fronted bands than any other decade before or since. Or maybe I just remember it that way. In any case, central to that memory is Dolores O’Riordan’s “stadium-size hit about deadly violence in Northern Ireland,” and its beautifully pained laments and pointedly unsubtle yelps and wails—a stunning expression of mourning that reverberates still some 25 years later as we mourn its singer’s untimely passing.