Dolores O’Riordan of The Cranberries died Jan. 15 in a hotel in London from undisclosed causes (as of the time of this writing). As the lead singer of the band and co-writer of some of their biggest hits, her death came as a shock to countless fans who grew up listening to songs such as “Linger” and “Zombie.” Known for their mixture of pop and grungier rock sounds, the band was able to peacefully coexist with the various burgeoning scenes of the early ’90s, even as they found success for their emotional and often-introspective narratives of love, regret and loss. O’Riordan’s voice was unabashedly expressive, carrying with it an ocean of earnest sentiment without bowing to bland sentimentality.
She and the band were part of a shared history for many, one that found resolve in their rolling Britpop-esque melodies and dark guitar arrangements. They were accessible enough to be played on both MTV and VH1, as well as your local radio station. But there was more to the band’s music than the singles would lead you to believe. They were able to work within these musical avenues to create a sound that was deceptive in its resolution and bore the weight of a new generation of music lovers. They felt like a personal discovery, the band you secretly held to your chest before realizing you weren’t alone in your adoration.
The roots of the band go all the way back to The Cranberry Saw Us, which was formed by brothers Mike and Noel Hogan (who played bass and electric guitar, respectively), drummer Fergal Lawler and singer Niall Quinn in Limerick, Ireland. However, with less than a year’s tenure, Quinn exited the band, and the remaining members did what they thought would find them a new member the quickest: They placed an advertisement in a local paper for a singer. Shortly thereafter, they were approached by O’Riordan, who auditioned by writing lyrics and melodies for some of the band’s scrappy demos. The version of “Linger” that she rewrote and brought to the band was all the convincing they needed to bring her on as a permanent member.
They then headed into the studio to record “Nothing Left at All,” a three-song EP that was released via Xeric Records, a local musical imprint. After it was released, the band changed their name to The Cranberries and took on Xeric Records owner Pearse Gilmore as their manager. He procured them studio time and produced their demo tape, which he sent around to record companies all over the U.K. The tape was well-received and opened a bidding war between a handful of major British labels, with the band eventually signing to Island Records. With the label’s backing, they went back into the studio with Gilmore and recorded their “official” debut EP, “Uncertain.”
The EP garnered bad reviews, and as tensions between the band and Gilmore escalated—most notably during the sessions for what would have been their debut LP for Island—they eventually fired him as their manager. They paired with Geoff Travis as their new manager and headed back into the studio with producer Stephen Street, who had worked on music by The Smiths and Blur. During all these tumultuous events, the band continued to tour throughout the U.K. and Ireland.
The band released their first single, “Dreams,” in September 1992, followed by their debut album, “Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?,” in March of the following year. Written entirely by O’Riordan and Noel Hogan, the record didn’t set the charts on fire when it was first released, nor did its accompanying singles. The band began a support tour opening for Suede, and it was during these concerts that they first came to the attention of MTV, who added the videos for “Dreams” and second single “Linger” to their daily rotation. With the support of these videos, the band rereleased both singles almost a year later and saw them climb the charts, which in turn drove the record to the top of the U.K. Album Chart.
This is an album aware of the forward direction of pop music and grunge while also turning its eye toward a particular musical classicism. On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be anything especially revolutionary about their music. But the band is honest about its affections for emotionally driven narratives and heart-on-sleeve perspectives; there is no deception, only the glimmer of gorgeous pop-rock rhythms and hummable melodies that stick in your head and heart for days.
While fantastically catchy, those singles only hint at the depth of the album. As a teenager listening to them, these songs are like diary confessions, brief snippets of relatable turmoil and anxiety that seem to cling to your skin. Touching on universal experiences, and some that are a bit more focused, the band wanders through a heavy brew of emotions in songs such as “Pretty” and “Put Me Down,” with swirling guitars and impressionistic percussion rumbling in the background like some distant heartbeat. The guitars even borrow a bit from bands like Cocteau Twins and Slowdive, taking shoegaze and dream pop inclinations and reworking them in unique ways.
There is a tendency to think of their music as lightweight and somewhat insubstantial, but that’s only if you’ve not looked beneath its swirling guitar surfaces. There is a storm beneath its steady rhythms, a rising tide of honest emotion and carefully cultivated catharses. The band picked up on some random musical frequency and saw the pop-rock possibilities inherent to the ’90s. They found a way to take the forms and structures of the past and adapt them for their own uses. When a musician passes away, people will start to re-evaluate their work; in the case of “Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?,” that re-evaluation is long overdue.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.