In the mid-’90s, countless column inches were devoted to digging into the reasons behind The Cranberries’ rise to global stardom and everyone came to the same conclusion: Dolores O’Riordan’s celestial chops and stark songwriting. To hear such a heavenly voice curling around images of violence was to be mesmerised. Perhaps it was relief at hearing someone who didn't pretend everything was okay.
Given the brash backdrop of Britpop, that release was necessary. As Blur and Oasis repackaged the rock of the ’60s and ’70s with a cock-sure snarl – eventually spawning Empire-nostalgic headlines like “Cool Britannia” – The Cranberries, with O’Riordan at the helm, were more concerned with the day-to-day reality of life; the hard knocks and the heartache. All four members of the band were born working class in and around Limerick in Ireland. O’Riordan was the youngest of nine children, two of whom had died as infants. As an Irish band who grew up in the shadow of the Troubles, it’s hardly surprising they didn’t succumb to the forced optimism of the times, which climaxed with the 1997 UK election of “New Labour” and its neoliberal agenda.
While The Cranberries’ music sometimes sounded warm and fuzzy – they drew on Celtic rock, shoegaze, and grunge – its role was to provide the perfect foil for O’Riordan’s anguished lilt. Her singing style was influenced by the Irish tradition of keening, a type of vocal lament sung during funeral processions. Paired with her uncompromising lyrics, O’Riordan made the band’s focus one of confronting trauma, both personal and communal.
That approach crystallised on 1994’s No Need To Argue, which shrugged off the rock truism about difficult second albums to sell 17 million copies worldwide. It remains the band’s most successful album. While its story tends to orbit the icy IRA protest song, “Zombie,” which propelled the band’s popularity in America thanks to MTV’s support of the video, it’s just one example of O’Riordan’s unblinking eloquence on the record. Her songwriting style was direct and generous, often painting rhyming couplets with just enough narrative brush strokes to invite the audience in.
The way she sang certain words sometimes revealed more than what she half-said. On “Ode To My Family,” the low, round “like” of the line “Do you like me?” becomes a dropped penny in a wishing well; she sounds unconvinced of the outcome but chances it anyway. She’s at the top of her register on “Empty,” stretching the titular lyric to the thickness of a silk scarf that slips so easily through one’s fingers. On “The Icicle Melts,” she reaches furious heights on the repetition of “child”: “I should not have read the paper today / ‘Cause a child, child, child, child / He was taken away.”
While pro-life groups heard in “The Icicle Melts” an anti-abortion anthem – O’Riordan was raised Catholic and had previously made comments about abortion that could be interpreted that way, although later in life she rarely spoke on the subject – she told an Australian magazine in 1994 that she wrote it in response to the torture and murder of British toddler James Bulger. The story had dominated the newspapers the previous year.
“It’s kind of awkward as you don’t want to write about a specific person,” she said of her approach to songwriting in the interview. “You are writing it about a specific thing, like man’s humanity to man or child, which is worse.”
O’Riordan’s willingness to grapple with subjects that many artists in the rock and pop realm shy from is pulled into sharp focus in the context of her own childhood. In her early 40s, she spoke publicly for the first time about being sexually abused between the ages of 8 and 12 by a family friend. As an adult, she developed anorexia, depression (which was later diagnosed as bipolar disorder), and drinking problems. To understand that she was dealing with these issues at the height of her career – The Cranberries released four albums between 1993-9 and were locked into back-to-back tours – is to understand that she was under extreme outside pressure, something that no doubt compounded her trauma.
“Having spent no time at home, and having lived for so long in buses with men, and this isolation in hotel rooms all the time, and this hectic schedule, it did just get to a point when I kinda wondered if anybody really cared about me as a person,” she said in a 1999 interview. “When I said I’d like to take a break, it was like, ‘Oh no, no you can’t.’”
The battle between being viewed as a performer and feeling seen as person is one that O’Riordan fought her whole life. “People look at you and see a product,” she said in 2014. “They don’t see a soul.”
In the same way she used vocal emphasis to hint at hidden depths, around the time of The Cranberries’ third album To The Faithful Departed, she began to use the music video as a way of saying something without saying it. A person-sized birdcage is the stage that O’Riordan gave herself in the video for The Cranberries’ 1996 single “Free To Decide.” Enveloped in a long white dress covered in feathers, her cropped hair hidden beneath a hood-like veil, she embodies the sense of entrapment that can come with fame.
It’s a theme she returned to in the video for “Tomorrow,” from the 2012 album Roses, which would prove to be the band’s last album of entirely new material. She’s seen lying in an underground cell in the video, her body once again imprisoned, wrapped in heavy chains and blood-red roses, with a rosary by her side. Later, still in chains, she performs the song with the band while images of their early days are projected on the wall behind them. The song’s about “the way we sometimes hyper over-escalate things in our minds,” she said at the time. In hindsight, “Tomorrow” reads like a letter to herself. The way she sings “too foolish,” launching it from her body with a snarl, speaks volumes. With brittle clarity, O’Riordan once again showed a glimpse of her own pain to allow others to feel some sense of release through her.
Dolores O’Riordan died on January 15, 2018. While the circumstances of her death are deeply tragic, nothing can overshadow the depth and breadth of her contribution to music. 25 years on from The Cranberries’ debut album, it’s O’Riordan’s soul-searing intentions and intonation that people still connect with. Dolores O’Riordan was a lover and a fighter; in sharing her voice with the world, her art will continue to light a match under those who need it for generations to come.
Illustration: André Gottschalk