Is Prozac rock finally waking up and smelling the coffee? First the Cowboy Junkies, who led the way for the new numbed-out pop, realize on their latest album, Lay It Down, that a little rhythm and voltage isn’t such a bad thing. Now the same thought seems to have occurred to the Cranberries. Have you seen their new video ”Salvation” — or, more to the point, have you recognized it? The song itself is a punky whirling dervish, and singer Dolores O’Riordan, sporting a dyed-black buzz cut, sells it with a playful snarl. Is this the same bleach-blond doe who sweetly exhaled lyrics about her dysfunctional family on the band’s placid 1994 hit ”Ode to My Family”?
Thankfully, the answer is no. On the Cranberries’ two previous albums (1993’s Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We? and 1994’s No Need to Argue), O’Riordan murmured about abused children, hopelessly unrequited passion, and peace in her Irish homeland. But the band’s tranquil, mild pop effectively neutralized her sentiments. ”Salvation,” a none-too-subtle mocking of just-say-no thinking, is the first indication that things have changed on the band’s third and best album, To the Faithful Departed. ”Hollywood,” O’Riordan’s elliptical musing on success, is set to a vacuum-cleaner wall of sound much heavier than that of their hit ”Zombie.” ”I Just Shot John Lennon,” a straightforward recounting of that evening’s events, whooshes along. Even the mid-tempo songs have a new sense of uplift; ”Free to Decide,” in which O’Riordan accepts the end of a relationship and decides to move on, has a euphoric, reach-for-the-sky chorus that reinforces the song’s theme of renewal.
Some of the credit for the musical muscularity surely belongs to their new producer, Bruce Fairbairn, a Bon Jovi and Aerosmith veteran. Fairbairn is no genius, but he knows the value of punchy hooks and pacing. To the Faithful Departed is imbued with both, from the merry-go-round keyboards of ”Will You Remember?” (O’Riordan ponders which memories of her an ex-lover will take with him) to ”Electric Blue,” a delightfully strange chant with a Latin chorus. Though her fellow Cranberries remain fairly anonymous as musicians, O’Riordan sounds more alive than ever throughout the album. She hiccups, wails like a banshee in heat, or coos like a one-woman girl group or a bunch of female Gregorian monks condensed into one.
To match the band’s newly aggressive attack, O’Riordan (who wrote or co-wrote the songs) apparently decided to turn herself into a distaff Sting. She has a right to tackle whatever weighty matters she desires, but she does it with all the subtlety of a St. Patrick’s Day parade. In ”Bosnia,” she chastises us about living ”in secure surroundings/And people die out there.” ”War Child” lays out similarly obvious sentiments (”At time of war we’re all losers/There’s no victory”) with maudlin orchestration that makes the song drag even more. ”I’m Still Remembering” begins with O’Riordan ruminating on life before and after her marriage. Suddenly, though, it becomes a wide-eyed commentary on martyrs like Kurt Cobain and John F. Kennedy (”ever saintly in a way”). And in case the lyrics elude you, ”I Just Shot John Lennon” ends with the sound of five gunshots.
Those moments slow the album’s momentum, but never fatally so. If the Cranberries once sounded as if they were sleepwalkers in a world gone weird, To the Faithful Departed sounds as if they’ve finally awakened. They may not like what they see, but at least they’re ready and willing to scream about it. A-