When Dolores O’Riordan died suddenly in 2018, the blow reverberated around the indie music world. She was more than just the lead singer of the Cranberries; her ghostly, emotional voice and raw, honest songwriting seemed to speak on behalf of an entire generation. But as essential as O’Riordan was to the Cranberries, it was the band as a whole that created such an effective platform for her voice that they sold 40 million albums during her lifetime.
The seed for the Cranberries was sprouted in 1989, in Limerick, Ireland, as a band called the Cranberry Saw Us, consisting of brothers Noel (guitar) and Mike (bass) Hogan, plus singer Niall Quinn and drummer Fergal Lawler. When Quinn left the band less than a year later, the others decided to search for a female lead singer. They certainly found a winner in O’Riordan. She was 18 years old and chomping at the bit for a band to write songs for.
Together they developed a rough, dark melding of techno, folk, and grunge. As it turns out, that’s exactly what a wide swath of young people, particularly in Europe, were aching for. Within a year they had recorded two EPs and gained the attention of some pretty big record industry people, including Rough Trade’s founder, Geoff Travis. After a few months of watching labels fight over them, the newly-renamed Cranberries signed with Island Records.
One reason for the success of their first album, Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We (1993), is producer Stephen Street, whose pedigree already included the Smiths and Blur. Street helped to ensure that O’Riordan and Noel Hogan’s original songs had a sound that supported their emotional candor. In the UK, this album was (and is) unusual for climbing the charts steadily but slowly for over a year and a half; it eventually reached No. 1.
The debut included two singles that quickly became emblematic of young listeners of 1990s: the melancholy “Dreams” with O’Riordan’s harmonies against her own voice, and the eerie “Linger,” sweetened by a string arrangement. The singles were co-written by O’Riordan and Hogan, but O’Riordan also wrote some on her own, including “Waltzing Back,” less accessible, more punk and idiosyncratic than their big hits.
The darkness of “Waltzing Back” was a harbinger for the grimmer sounds of their next album, on which they opted for the producing prowess of Bruce Fairbairn; he had made a name for himself in the studio with Blue Öyster Cult, Kiss, AC/DC, and others. The following year, the Cranberries released No Need to Argue, a success right out of the gate.
O’Riordan delved deeper into her personal life with songs like “Ode to My Family” and touched on her political views in the hugely popular “Zombie,” an anti-war elegy about the long years of violent conflict between the UK and Ireland. In an interview with Songwriting Magazine, she explained that a bombing in London that killed a little girl was the specific impetus for the song.
Less well known from No Need to Argue is “Daffodil Lament,” ethereal and disturbing, O’Riordan’s keening contribution to the genre of sad love song.
Fairbairn also produced To the Faithful Departed (1996), which would become the band’s highest-charting album in the US. On its original release, the single “Salvation” hit the top of Billboard’s Modern Rock chart. The most surprising aspect of the enhanced re-release of that album is the appearance by Luciano Pavarotti on Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” with O’Riordan singing in a fluttery mezzo before the operatic maestro comes in with his muted trumpet of a tenor voice.
One of the most interesting songs from the original track list is “Electric Blue,” which starts in the style of a Catholic chant with a chorus in Latin asking God for help. The neo-medievalist style brings to mind Maddy Prior’s fierce singing of “Gaudete” with Steeleye Span.
O’Riordan needed a break starting in 1996. Stress and a recurring leg injury were making her ill and unable to perform. She also took time to have a child before the Cranberries regrouped to make Bury the Hatchet, released in 1999. It’s a particularly intense album, dealing with serious topics like child abuse. The only successful single was “Promises,” with a lyric about divorce and an unusually heavy rock sound.
Wake Up and Smell the Coffee followed in 2001, produced by their old friend Stephen Street. Except in the ever-reliable France, Italy, and Spain, where it reached No. 2, the album was not a hit. In fact, its lackluster performance prompted the band to leave MCA Records, where they’d been shifted after Island Records became part of a merger.
“Do You Know” is worth a listen for the way it flips relentlessly between major and minor. Minor wins out, of course; this is the Cranberries, after all!
Both O’Riordan and Noel Hogan wanted to turn their attention to solo projects. Mike Hogan opened a café, and Lawler found plenty of drumming work with other bands. This time, the Cranberries’ hiatus was to last for six years. But they came back punching in 2012 with Roses. Leaving behind the big-time labels, they went with British indie Cooking Vinyl, with Street once again producing.
Most of the songs had already been written and recorded for a 2003 album that never happened. Street had them make new versions for Roses. The singles, such as “Tomorrow” – about not overthinking – and the reggae-influenced “Raining in My Heart” did not have much impact on the mainstream industry, but the band’s long-time fans remained faithful.
“Fire and Soul” is an album-only cut, except in Russia, where it was released as a single. Cowritten by O’Riordan and Noel Hogan, it seems to urge an obsession into matching that wild ardor. The laid-back tempo belies the content of the lyrics.
No one had any idea that 2017’s Something Else would be the last Cranberries album released while O’Riordan was still alive. As a celebration of the band’s 25th anniversary, Something Else was a retrospective. Seven of its ten songs are acoustic arrangements of earlier numbers, including early hits like “Linger.”
O’Riordan’s leg injury continued to worsen, and she had to perform seated during the tour for Something Else. That chronic pain would turn out to be a lethal combination with her bipolar disorder and history of alcohol abuse. She died of accidental drowning while drunk in a bathtub in January of 2018. She was 46.
The surviving members called their final album In the End, working with Street one last time to present O’Riordan’s remaining vocal tracks to her shocked and mourning fans. In an interview with NPR after the release of In the End, Noel Hogan explained the tragic irony of her death: O’Riordan seemed to have turned a corner in terms of her mental health and had been looking forward to a new beginning.
That was the end of the Cranberries, appropriately enough. The band simply could not exist without the haunting sounds and haunted outlook of Dolores O’Riordan. Here’s the poignant “Catch Me If You Can” from In the End.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Fabio Diena.