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Remembering Dolores O’Riordan and the Startling Power of “Zombie”

The Cranberries lead singer died Monday in London

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The first time you heard it on the radio — the plodding rumble, the crushing distortion, the towering dread — Dolores O’Riordan’s was the last voice you expected to hear howling over it. “Zombie,” the lead single from 1994’s No Need to Argue, the second album from Irish rock band the Cranberries, was a slow-motion punch, a startling reminder that some of the alt-rock era’s gnarliest anthems emerged from the unlikeliest places. When news broke Monday afternoon that O’Riordan had died, at 46, of unspecified causes, “Zombie” is the song that immediately lodged itself in my head. It sounds wildly anomalous, given the other songs that made her famous. But it’s less of an outlier than it appears. And it’s very difficult to shake this image, even nearly 25 years later.

The Cranberries put out seven full-length albums over 24 years, an impressive and challenging body of work built on a foundation of multiplatinum albums and unlikely smash singles. The band’s earliest hits — namely “Dreams” and “Linger,” both pulled from their 1993 debut Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We? — were delicate and gorgeous in a distinctly hard-nosed sort of way. Their inspirations and forebears, many of them likewise proudly claimed by Ireland, weren’t hard to spot: the ethereal glamour of Enya, the sentimental skepticism of Sinéad O’Connor, the football-stadium grandiosity of U2. The band’s first two albums, including No Need to Argue, were produced by Stephen Street, who’d worked extensively with the Smiths, the band that first mastered the art of Weaponized Moping. The Cranberries were stars, or at least O’Riordan was, the girl with several-dozen visible thorns in her side.

If you judged the band entirely on its radio hits and its MTV-burnished image, “Zombie” was an abrupt and bruising departure, as if every other Cranberries song in existence were blaring simultaneously through a tank-size distortion pedal. But emotionally, at least, it made sense in context. For a record with songs called “Yeat’s Grave” and “Daffodil Lament,” No Need to Argue is not gentle even when it sounds gentle. “The Icicle Melts” rhymes “the baby that died” with “the mother who cried.” The sweetly lilting opening track, “Ode to My Family,” resolves into a chorus of “Does anyone care?” And O’Riordan’s lovely opening soprano trills serve as a head-fake on “Ridiculous Thoughts,” another hit single that quickly pushes the tempo and turns into a bar fight. Across the band’s catalog — and her 2007 solo album, Are You Listening?, whose harder-edged moments sound familiar indeed — she sang about abortion, and child abuse, and drugs, and suicide. She could make darkness sound awfully sweet, which only made her bitterer moments sound bitterer still.

Inspired by a 1993 bombing by the Irish Republican Army, “Zombie” was the 1990s’ even more anguished answer to U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” another stadium-size hit about deadly violence in Northern Ireland. Lyrically, there is no subtlety to it, from “In your head / In your head / They are dying” to “With their tanks / And their bombs / And their bombs / And their guns.” But a lack of subtlety is the point, and despite its stubborn and bone-simple four-chord simplicity, “Zombie” makes for a shockingly compelling one-song YouTube rabbit hole now. The especially slow and intense version the Cranberries unveiled on Saturday Night Live in 1995 almost makes their clamorous performance for David Letterman a few months earlier feel like a sprint. For MTV Unplugged (also in ’95), they added weeping strings, which snuck back into the rerecorded version that appeared on the band’s last album, 2017’s Something Else. And during an NPR Tiny Desk Concert to promote their 2012 album, Roses, they politely fulfilled a crowd request for “Zombie” immediately. No drums, no distortion. But O’Riordan’s voice was always where all the power came from: the feral growl she gave every instance of the word zombie, the pained upward lilt that spiked the end of nearly every syllable. Her anger on that song was never quite as shocking, or impressive, as the fact that she somehow managed to mostly keep it hidden, most of the rest of the time.