Last week’s news about The Cranberries’ Dolores O’Riordan was a shock. Bracing for the departure of the elders of rock is one thing, but forty-six is unbearably young to go.
The CD single of “Linger” was one of my first gifts to J., in the year that we met, so it’s still special to me. I loved their debut album, and their second. The third felt more abrasive, and at some point I let widespread critical disdain influence me to the point where I sold my copy and forgot about it. “I Just Shot John Lennon” was pretty rubbish, really. But “Free to Decide” was good, so why didn’t that tip me towards keeping it?
The reviews for their fourth album, Bury the Hatchet, were also disparaging, partly because its cover was so naff (but then none of theirs are particularly iconic). When countless copies flooded the CD discount stores, I figured—on the basis of no direct contact with the contents—that it couldn’t have been very good, and soon I’d forgotten not just about To the Faithful Departed but the band altogether.
Inevitably, on hearing this news it all came flooding back—the string of great singles from those early albums—and soon I was listening to everything. I started with the album that had previously defeated me, To the Faithful Departed, which apart from “I Just Shot John Lennon” was fine. That song is still annoyingly trite, though. O’Riordan was clearly trying to channel her lingering grief as a fan over Lennon’s murder, but the lyrics just aren’t up to the job. “It was a fearful night... John Lennon’s life was no longer a debate... What a sad and sorry and sickening sight”: it’s all a bit William McGonagall. And why, oh why did they have to close it with sound effects?
Credit to them, though, for being one of the few bands to comment directly in their songs on some of the big conflicts of the 1990s. There weren’t many pop or rock songs about the war in Bosnia at the time. There were more about the Troubles, but “Zombie” looms large among them.
Next it was onto Bury the Hatchet, and dammit, it’s good. Curse you, misleading discount bins of 1999. Their fifth album, Wake Up and Smell the Coffee (with Stephen Street on production), isn’t bad either, though it’s a bit less immediate.
Music critics and album covers have a lot to answer for, even if they bring pleasures of their own; encountering songs as files with tiny embedded images demolishes a lot of unhelpful preconceptions.
Speaking of preconceptions, it seems that for some disgruntled fans “The Icicle Melts” (from 1994’s No Need to Argue) was evidence of O’Riordan being a pro-life activist. Not being Catholic myself, I’d never really paid attention to her Catholicism, though I expect it would loom large in the concerns of any Irish artist. She seems to have had issues with abortion which may well have stemmed from her upbringing, though on the basis of her 1995 comments I wouldn’t cast her as an activist—“I’m in no position to judge other women, you know?” But I’d always thought “The Icicle Melts” was about James Bulger’s abduction and murder, a huge news story in Britain in 1993: “I should not have read the paper today, cause a child, child he was taken away.” The references to “the baby that died” could easily refer to a two-year-old, and “nine months is too long” could refer either to the nine months it took for the perpetrators to be convicted, or to the nine months Bulger’s mother carried her baby only for him to be killed a few short years later. There may be some overlap there with the concerns that drove her to write “Zombie”:
I remember seeing one of the mothers on television, just devastated. I felt so sad for her, that she’d carried him for nine months, been through all the morning sickness, the whole thing and some... prick, some airhead who thought he was making a point, did that.