“Bury the Hatchet,” by the Irish pop band The Cranberries, was one of the very first CDs I ever purchased myself. (And, as it turned out, one of the last, since the era of the compact disc was already on the wane in 1999.) I probably bought it at Newbury Comics in Harvard Square; I was probably about 12 years old.
I don’t remember the buying so much as the having -- where it lived on my CD shelf, tucked in between Bob Dylan and the bulk of the Barenaked Ladies’ discography. There was a crack in the jewel case. I do remember being slightly scandalized by the cover. It showed a man crouched, naked, against an arid desert backdrop, cowering under the menacing gaze of a giant floating eye. The imagery seemed rife with import, but looking back I’m not sure it meant much at all.
On Monday, The Cranberries’ frontwoman Dolores O’Riordan died, unexpectedly, at the age of 46. In the coming days, assessments will be made: of The Cranberries’ music, of O’Riordan’s life, of her untimely death. I hope that as much scrutiny is paid to her artistry as to her biography. As the lead singer in a rock band, O’Riordan was at once its focal point and a casualty of its cooperative structure, and she never really transcended that first, career-defining gig. Her voice formed the backdrop to my pre-teens, which were suffused with the wistful, shimmery sounds of hits like “Dreams” and “Linger.” But I’m not sure I know who Dolores O’Riordan, as an artist, truly was.
What I do know is that she had the most magnificent voice. In my memory it was gauzy, ethereal, but listening back I am struck by O’Riordan’s limberness. She could be sharp and she could be keening. She was fond of that yodely vocal break that defined a lot of female alt-rock singing in the ‘90s. When she let loose that exquisite, wordless holler, it was a beautiful thing.
As a young consumer of music I considered it my duty to cultivate a working knowledge of the canon. I listened to the Beatles and Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. From them I gained an appreciation for song structure, for lusty guitar riffs and for musical adventurousness. But theirs was essentially a masculine perspective, one in which women were observed, desired and even loved, but rarely heard. For this reason, I never really connected with the human vessels of my favorite rock ‘n’ roll songs. With The Cranberries, I discovered a voice.
The Cranberries’ biggest hit was “Zombie,” and that is the song that comes to me most vividly now. O’Riordan, who also played guitar, wrote “Zombie” in response to an IRA bombing in Warrington, England, that left two children dead.
At the time, I am sure I did not understand the full political significance of the song. But I knew it was a statement. In this, as in everything she touched, O’Riordan asserted her voice as much more than a delivery system for the kind of music that men, armed with drumsticks and guitars and amplifiers, got to make. That voice, she told me, definitely had something to say.