R.I.P. Dolores O’Riordan: Remembering The Voice of 90’s Heartache–a tribute to the late Irish singer of The Cranberries, who was a master of the lovelorn ballad.
Generation X lost another 90’s music icon yesterday: The Cranberries vocalist Dolores O’Riordan passed away at the untimely age of 46. Given that I’m the same age, it certainly brings one’s mortality into focus.
We don’t know the reasons why, yet. It doesn’t matter anyways, does it? It’s just another gut-punch for music fans of that era.
But what’s worth celebrating is a singer (and a band) that truly occupied a unique musical space in alternative rock. The Cranberries were lovable oddballs in a way, which made them (and O’Riordan) all the more endearing.
The Cranberries hit in big in 1993, thanks to their bestselling début album Everyone Else is Doing It, So Why Can’t We? (which turns 25 years old this March). The hit singles Dreams and Linger made them fixtures on MTV, their musical style standing out from the grunge acts that were still in favor at the time.
While loud American guitars had replaced ethereal 80’s jangle-pop on college radio, The Cranberries, (who hailed from Limerick, Ireland) were in many ways a throwback, recalling acts like The Sundays, The Smiths, The Cocteau Twins, and fellow Irish artist Sinead O’Connor.
Their début album came out in the fall of 1993, and boy the timing proved serendipitous. I was coping (poorly) with some crippling depression, which had caused me to temporarily drop out of college, then switch schools. I felt isolated and just genuinely out-of-sorts.
Then one day, while listening to my local alternative radio station, I heard Dreams. From its rich echoey guitars to her wonderful Irish brogue vocal stylings, I was hooked, and bought the album shortly afterwards. It was a lifesaver and got me through that rough patch mostly unscathed.
That album was perfection, really. From the ghostly opener I Still Do to the wistful closer Put Me Down, there isn’t one bad song. And I would argue that many deep tracks, like Sorry, and (my personal favorite) I Will Always, deserve just as much acclaim as the hits.
But one can’t deny the charms of the bitter breakup song Linger, can we? From its dewy guitar textures to its orchestral flourishes, it was a marvel, with O’Riordans’s rich multitracked vocals bringing everything to a melancholic yet oddly triumphant conclusion.
And that was what O’Riordan and her band mates did so well, didn’t they? They conjured musical heartache like no other band of the decade. She said as much in a 1996 press conference, noting I write at my best when feeling negative. When I’m happy, I prefer to go to the pub and have a Guinness or two – I guess I’m a bit of a melancholy type of person. There’s plenty of happy music out there. If people want to buy happy music, there’s always Kylie Minogue.
Her voice remains a unique instrument, braying yet tender, outsized yet intimate, even incorporating yodeling to electic effect. Her bandmates knew how to tailor their sound to fit her vocals, and the unique tension of their subdued arrangements with her widescreen sonics is what made them click.
The Cranberries would have their biggest hit in 1994 with Zombie, off the album No Need To Argue, which saw O’Riordan commenting on IRA bombings with unforgettable lyrics like: In your head, in your head, they are fighting/With their tanks, and their bombs/And their bombs, and their guns/In your head, in your head they are crying.
The song titled and the heavy distorted riff saw the group adopting a bit of grunge attitude, yet it felt organic to their sound. The video remains iconic, with a gold-flecked O’Riordan wailing away over saturated backdrops.
Other tracks from the album were deeply autobiographical. Take Ode to My Family or Ridiculous Thoughts, two songs that hint at a singer with struggled with a troubled childhood and bipolar disorder, issues she would discuss in detail after dealing with some legal skirmishes in recent years, including an assault against a flight attendant on an airline.
I’ve read quotes from interviews, where the singer has admitted to feeling ill at ease in her own skin–and this insecurity would rear it’s ugly ahead through addiction and eating disorders.
But it was her lack of insulation, her raw emotional wiring, that made her so relatable and loved by fans. It’s always unfortunate that this sensitivity, which can create such emotive responses in listeners, carries such a burden for the artist.
I won’t pretend to have followed the band, or O’Riordan’s career as intensely after No Need To Argue. I wasn’t the only one, as shown by the commercial disappointment of their poorly received 1996 release To The Faithful Departed. In fact I had only recently reengaged with her talents with D.A.R.K. (a collaboration with Smiths bassist Andy Rourke and her boyfriend, DJ Olé Koretsky).
Why did The Cranberries have such a short tenure as alt-rock darlings? On one hand, O’Riordan seemed to have tired of the rock star grind, telling The Independent in 1999 that I just wanted to stay at home, do the laundry, take my children to school. Just switch off and be a mother… I became a volunteer at my children’s school, I went into the classroom. It was very grounding. I got sick of being famous.
On the other, alternative rock was on the outs by the mid-90’s anyways. Few bands that hit it big early on could keep up the momentum.
It’s also worth noting that for as many albums as they sold, they were never critically revered. Not many critics went to bat for them, and that’s a shame. Perhaps now is the perfect time for a reassessment.
Her death will of course cause many to dig out their old CD’s, or search out her back catalogue on YouTube, as it should. In an era where we seem to endure heartbreak on a much more routine level than ever, it should prove potent musical therapy, and keep the memory of her musical gifts deeply, vibrantly alive.
The Cranberries, lived up to their name. They made a bittersweet sound. And remembering a life cut too short, while celebrating music that helped keep me going during my tumultous early 20’s, is a bittersweet feeling indeed.
Thanks Dolores, for being there when I needed you. You will be missed.