Dusting 'Em Off
Revisiting an album, a film, or an event on its anniversary

The Cranberries’ Stunning Debut Does More Than Just Linger 25 Years Later

on March 03, 2018, 12:00am

The death of Cranberries lead singer Dolores O’Riordan on January 15, 2018, plunged Ireland into a state of national mourning. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar called O’Riordan “the voice of a generation,” radio stations across the country organized a simultaneous broadcast of the band’s 1996 hit “When You’re Gone” in lieu of a moment of silence, and memorial services in her native Limerick included a public repose described by the Irish Times as “a tribute normally reserved for Presidents, Popes, and heads of State.”

In the midst of all these overwhelming tributes, the most affecting one was also the most spontaneous: the Monday following her death, musicians from across Limerick gathered with fans in the city center. Armed with their own instruments and voices, they filled the air above Arthur’s Quay Park with Cranberries hits turned suddenly, and solemnly, into hymns.

Hearing “Linger” now, in the wake of recent grief, it feels necessary to revisit what made the song (and its accompanying album, 1993’s Everybody’s Doing It, So Why Can’t We?) so beloved to begin with.

First, some history: “Linger” was the first song that The Cranberries (then still called The Cranberry Saw Us) wrote together in 1989, when O’Riordan answered a classified posted by brothers Noel and Mike Hogan and friend Feargal Lawler. It was among the songs that The Cranberries played to what veteran Irish music critic Colm O’Callaghan called “general audience indifference” during their years spent gigging in college bars around Ireland and the song that eventually helped spark a bidding war that would see the band wind up on Island Records. Most importantly, it was also the song that helped O’Riordan access her greatest muse: her own conflicted feelings.

In an interview with The Guardian in 2017, O’Riordan revealed that The Cranberries’ first hit was inspired by her experience of getting charmed, and subsequently spurned, by a teenage crush.

“Everyone saw me being dumped, publicly, at the disco,” O’Riordan told interviewer Dave Sampson. “Everything’s so dramatic when you’re 17, so I poured it into the song.”

By the time the group entered the studio to record the rest of its debut album, that romantic confessionalism had become The Cranberries’ early creative blueprint. Listening to the album today, you’ll be amazed at how small it is — not in talent (the Hogans and Lawler eventually caught up to O’Riordan’s level) or in sound (the record’s atmospheric dream-pop brooding comes courtesy of veteran Smiths collaborator Stephen Street), but in the single-minded focus on interior life and interpersonal tangles found in O’Riordan’s lyrics.

Such narrow breadth allows for satisfying depth; while O’Riordan never veers beyond the boundaries of youthful angst, she uses the record’s 12 tracks to, as Rolling Stone’s Alec Foege put it in 1995, “[tell] the story of a young woman’s painful failures as an adolescent and her subsequent rebirth as a young adult.”

A single spin of Everybody… covers therapy-grade topics ranging from the difficulty of communicating with another person (“Sunday”) to finding agency in the face of patriarchal dismissiveness (“Pretty”) to the wounded ambivalence that comes with being hurt by someone you love (“Not Sorry”, “Wanted”, and “Still Can’t”). Even the record’s happiest song (the gossamer-winged single “Dreams”) comes tinged with anticipatory heartache; while O’Riordan sounds thrilled by the sheer act of falling in love, she can’t help but offer one final, reflexive request for care (“Now I tell you openly/ You have my heart so don’t hurt me”).

In the hands of a lesser band, such heavy subject matter might slump towards the maudlin or bristle with well-earned venom. On Everybody…, it never gets the chance. Instead, O’Riordan embraces her own vulnerabilities from the start, turning them from weaknesses into strengths through admission and examination. It’s an artifice-free approach, one that strips pop music of abstraction and mythology (one look at the title confirms that) and refits it with an empowering honesty rarely heard in the jaded alt-rock of the early ‘90s. If the resulting album isn’t the decade’s best coming-of-age record, it’s damn close.

If it felt like a major-label artist like O’Riordan was somehow operating outside the established confines of the music world, that’s because, in many ways, she was. Some of that was basic geography; her band formed well outside the radar of Ireland’s established music tastemakers in Dublin and maintained that shaggy provincialism even after they began attracting international attention (in his first review of the band for Melody Maker, O’Callaghan assesses that innocence thusly: “The Cranberries had never heard of The Sundays or The Throwing Muses nine months ago – their songs just happened, ‘they just came out’, and we believe that.”)

Some, however, was deliberate, or even unconsidered. For instance, O’Riordan was unintimidated by the idea of being a frontwoman in an overwhelmingly male-dominated Irish music scene (consider, for instance, the oft-told anecdote of O’Riordan’s audition, in which she bicycled to the band’s practice space with a broken keyboard under one arm and proceeded to blow the skeptical Hogans away with a soaring Sinead O’Connor cover). She also saw nothing wrong with singing in the accent of her native Ballybricken from the start, a surprisingly political decision that became a point of pride in Limerick and contrasted with other famous Irish artists who, as O’Connor told CNN in 2000, often found international success only when they “imitated American bands and […] imitated American accents.”

O’Riordan wasn’t simply breaking the rules; she was unconcerned with the very idea of rules to begin with. Instead, she lived the same kind of radical authenticity found in her songs, one that positioned her as a new kind of Irish rock star; instead of commanding attention with the maximalist world-conquering swagger of U2 (who were by then well into the excesses of their Zooropa years) or the transgressive iconoclasm of O’Connor, O’Riordan wielded an unprepossessing openness that proved as inclusive as it was personal. That people were paying attention almost seemed secondary to the act of expression itself. It’s a quiet confidence that was evident from the band’s very beginnings, as O’Callaghan can verify:

“To singer Dolores, pop songs have no truck with video and makeup, nothing to do with fanciful clothes. She’s stopped reading her band’s press because she doesn’t need us to tell her who she is. And when she stands still, saying little, in place like this, it’s because she’s unsure about all of the fuss. The Cranberries, understand, are charmingly naïve – it’s their single greatest attribute. They have no idea how good they are, of how important they might yet become.”

They would soon find out. Everybody… resonated with audiences far past Limerick, or even the rest of Ireland; it would go on to hit No. 1 in the UK and sell more than five million copies in the United States alone. Its release in 1993 coincided with a pivotal year for women in alternative rock, one that saw seminal releases from the likes of Liz Phair, P.J. Harvey, and The Breeders grab three of the top four spots in that year’s Pazz and Jop poll and put a lasting dent in the grunge bros’ stranglehold on the zeitgeist.

O’Riordan made that dent bigger and became a leading voice, at home and abroad, among that generation of prodigiously talented women. Her record (and the ones after it) became cherished musical guidance for millions of young adults going through the trials of their most bewildering years. Twenty-five years later, the reason for Everybody…’s enduring appeal seems clear; while it’s sometimes hard to imagine being as cool as Phair on Exile in Guyville or as commanding as Harvey on Rid of Me, it’s distressingly easy to slip back into the queasy teenage uncertainties that O’Riordan so expertly articulated. Writing for herself alone, she somehow managed to access the universal.

Let’s see a head of state do that.

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