This review of ‘To the Faithful Departed’ originally appeared in the June 1996 issue of Spin. In light of Dolores O’Riordan’s passing, we are republishing it now.
It’s a voice that fairly wails “pop star” — so willful that charges of innocence or self-delusion are meaningless. Dolores O’Riordan’s brogueish lilts, Sinéad-ish moans, and Bono-ish whoas bespeak a confidence that comes from a childhood spent inducing crusty old Irishmen to boo-hoo in their pints of Guinness down at the local pub. O’Riordan knows that her sadly predictable emotions exist in quotation marks, but she also knows that the chorus of every song has the power to magically edit those quotes away. She can sing about anything — war-stricken “sorrow,” lovers’ “grief,” who-will-save-the-babies “despair” — and it means everything, or nothing, depending on the moment.
This is the rarefied realm of pop, where Michael Jackson presides and others (Michael Stipe, Eddie Vedder) pretend, that O’Riordan and her platinum-selling band the Cranberries are crashing on their gravely titled third album. Produced by hard-rock vet Bruce Fairbairn (Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, AC/DC), To the Faithful Departed picks up where the band left off with “Zombie,” the crunchingly obvious elegy that forever erased O’Riordan’s image as a coyly vexed waif, and proved that the band could do tortured, U2-ish self-regard as well as doleful Smiths/Sundays chiming. Here, the lead-off track, “Hollywood,” relieves “Zombie” of its political context and neatly buffs up Noel Hogan’s guitars, while O’Riordan’s medley of vocal effects and achingly vague lyrics allow listeners to project their own disillusioning realizations — like, say, that war isn’t as glamorous as a Daniel Day-Lewis movie, or that love’s not as glamorous as a Liam Neeson movie, or vice versa. “Forever Yellow Skies” is almost as gleefully nebulous, with hypnotic new-wave guitars and vocals that are part Siouxsie Sioux, part Stacey Q.
Rather than empathizing with O’Riordan’s pained sketches, you just want her to be okay, which is another way of saying that she’s becoming a pop star. At this point, the most natural response to a Cranberries song is “Oh, Dolores, no.” Unfortunately, when O’Riordan does get lyrically specific, as on the abominable “Bosnia,” or the overly agitated “I Just Shot John Lennon,” or “Warchild,” a maudlin spotlight moment you’d expect at a school assembly from the youth choir’s biggest butt-kisser, patience flags. It’s indicative that the album’s most believable image is of a youthful O’Riordan subversively painting her toenails black (on “The Rebels”). The Cranboys, functioning here as glorified production assistants, string up a variety of ingratiating backdrops, but then O’Riordan insists on conflating Kurt Cobain’s suicide with John F. Kennedy’s assassination. You wonder if she has the slightest idea why she’s bothering, except that it’s the kind of thing a pop star’s supposed to do.