One Sunday afternoon in 1990, Dolores O’Riordan lugged her keyboard across Limerick, Ireland, for an audition. The 18-year-old only knew a few details about the rock band she would potentially be joining: They only wanted to play original songs and they were punnily named the Cranberry Saw Us (say it out loud).
For their part, the Cranberry Saw Us had not formed much of an identity beyond these details. The trio—drummer Fergal Lawler, guitarist Noel Hogan, and his bassist brother Mike—had grown up together in Limerick. As teens, they shared a love of breakdancing—Ireland had a robust breakdancing scene—and a fondness for the Smiths. The three had formed the Cranberry Saw Us about a year earlier but since their fourth member and frontman had departed, the band had been adrift. They had been searching for a female lead singer for months, but now that a slight, mousey candidate actually stood in front of them, they didn’t know what to make of her. However, when O’Riordan began to sing—her audition consisted of a few original tunes and a rendition of Sinéad O’Connor’s “Troy”—there was no question that they had found their new vocalist.
O’Riordan grew up about 10 miles outside Limerick in the rural townland of Ballybricken. The youngest of seven children, and one of two girls, O’Riordan learned early on that her voice would set herself apart: She was the precocious student that was asked to sing in Gaelic in front of the class, the tiny niece uncles brought around local pubs to entertain sloshed patrons. On her first day of secondary school, O’Riordan declared that she was going to be a rockstar before launching into a Patsy Cline song. She would go on to sing with a school choir that would frequently sweep the boards at Slogadh, an Irish youth arts festival. A devout Catholic, O’Riordan would later credit the church where she played the organ as the place that helped her envision music as a potential career. In 1992, she contextualized her band’s success as a kind of religious karma: “I could be just superstitious, but I think what’s happening now is a kind of a reward.”
After the audition, as O’Riordan headed out the door, the band handed her a tape with a loose sketch of a song—maybe she could think of some lyrics? The track consisted of four simple chords but, as O’Riordan remarked a few years later, “I took them home and I just wrote about me.” One week later she returned with a song that would change the foursome’s lives. Inspired by O’Riordan’s first kiss and the swift sting of rejection, “Linger” condenses every stage of heartache into four-and-a-half minutes of pop perfection with a few humble tools: an acoustic guitar riff, O’Riordan’s wistful humming, Lawler’s rolling drumbeat, and swooning orchestrals that aim for visions of grandeur far beyond the cheap synthesizer that produced them. The problem, as O’Riordan tells it, is that she gave her heart to someone, they stomped on it, and now she’s left holding the pieces. “But I’m in so deep/You know I’m such a fool for you/You got me wrapped around your finger,” she sings, her Irish brogue warming the edges of every syllable. All she wants is a little compassion moving forward: “Do you have to let it linger?”
As if galvanized by their new member, the band quickly began writing and performing with a newfound intensity. As O’Riordan later recounted, she initially assumed that people would find the cards-on-the-table emotion of songs like “Linger” too “girlie girlie.” “The music was so emotional I found that I could only write about personal things….I was sure that it would be considered soppy teenage crap, especially in Limerick, because most bands are really young (men), and their lyrics are humorous or mad. They don’t go pouring their hearts out,” she said. But the appreciation of O’Riordan’s vulnerability proved a point: everybody’s got a heart that breaks.
Once relegated to brief mentions in the local newspaper, by the summer of 1991, the band—now blessedly called the Cranberries—were British indie media darlings, especially after they signed a reported six-figure deal with Island. The press was especially charmed with O’Riordan, who was initially as unguarded in interviews as she was in song. Despite her shy nature and tendency to sometimes perform with her back to the audience, O’Riordan became the band’s mouthpiece, offering soundbites about her unfamiliarity with basic music equipment and passionate endorsement of the Catholic church.
That fall, Melody Maker visited the O’Riordan home in the Ballybricken and spotlighted the family’s soon-to-be-slaughtered Christmas turkeys, a kitschy Jesus clock, and supposed “gallons and gallons of Lourdes holy water.” “The Cranberries in general, and Dolores in particular, bring new meaning to words like innocence and naivete,” an Irish magazine quipped. (“Just because every second word isn’t ‘fuck’ and every song isn’t about sexual intercourse, people think it’s innocent,” O’Riordan retorted in 1992.) O’Riordan’s songwriting was vulnerable and her origins were certainly humble. But more often than not, these details played into sexist attitudes that align emotional awareness with fragility rather than a certain strength.
In March of 1993, after extensive soul-searching and some behind-the-scenes managerial drama, the Cranberries released their debut, Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We? If the band’s initial ascent to fame had exploited O’Riordan’s sensitivity as an oddity, Everybody Else bears no evidence that her heart was hardened as a result. “Linger” reappears and ascends to “Be My Baby”-levels of yearning thanks to the grandiose handiwork of producer Stephen Street, who had worked with the band’s beloved Smiths on albums like Meat Is Murder and The Queen Is Dead. “Dreams,” which articulates how falling in love is thrilling and terrifying all at once, achieves similar heights. From the first words out of O’Riordan’s mouth—“Oh my life/Is changing every day/In every possible way”—“Dreams” embraces the uncertain adventure ahead. With every new line, the band seems to breathe in fresh new air, constantly revitalizing themselves in real-time; at one point, O’Riordan lets out a defiant yodel, a vocal tradition that she was taught by her father.
Everybody Else is an album about relationships and the ways that a pair of people can love and hurt each other with equal intensity. Unfortunately, O’Riordan is consistently the one whose heart is getting broken. (“I was always one for the tears,” she once said.) Across 12 songs, the wind that once swept O’Riordan up into a gust of romantic euphoria has disappeared, leaving her desperate to understand where she—or her lover—faltered and everything fell apart. “Sunday” examines the dissolution from both sides, beginning with the other person’s unhurried romantic indecision, which is conveyed atop a gentle string arrangement. As if to express how destabilizing this waffling makes her feel, when it’s O’Riordan’s turn to vocalize her own perspective, the song shifts into a tighter, more upbeat melody. “You’re spinning me around/My feet are off the ground/I don’t know where I stand/Do you have to hold my hand?,” she tells her aloof lover. “You mystify me.”
While only “Dreams,” “Linger,” and “Sunday” channel swirling bliss, every song on Everybody Else blazes a path towards catharsis. Sometimes the exact conflict O’Riordan is trying to process can be difficult to pinpoint—“Still can’t recognize the way I feel,” she sings at one point—but this is an album that sinks into the idea that simply feeling can be enough. When O’Riordan is conflicted about a breakup, as on opener “I Still Do,” the band kicks up a grungy squall around her. Meanwhile, the seething betrayal of “How” boils over into a flood of rage, urged on by a blistering guitar riff, which Noel Hogan delivers as if he were trying to outrun the fire set by O’Riordan’s anguish. The Cranberries sound ridiculously tight as a unit, but their most expressive asset is always O’Riordan’s voice. In the band’s early days, she was often compared to Sinéad O’Connor; a feeble observation rooted in the fact that they were both Irish. But on the Cranberries’ heavier songs, O’Riordan moved into a class of her own: Every syllable becomes a tussle in miniature, either ripped from her mouth in protest, spat out in disgust, or bursting forth in delicious victory. On “Not Sorry,” you can hear her lips curl around each word: “Cause you lied, lied/And I cried/Yes, I cried, yes I cry, I cry, I try again,” she bellows, channeling the Gregorian chants that captivated her as a child.
As a songwriter, O’Riordan paid little attention to poetics and instead focused on firm, recurring questions: How do I feel now, what do I do next, can I learn anything from this? It is selfish songwriting that ends up being remarkably generous: O’Riordan’s recognition of her own emotional depths is affirming. Every matter of the heart is treated like a butterfly pinned under glass, a quietly complex entity deserving of appreciation for simply managing to once exist in this cruel world.
Everybody Else was far from an immediate hit in Europe. Across the Atlantic, however, “Linger” wormed its way up the college radio charts and soon its Godard-inspired video was receiving heavy rotation on MTV; its ethereal take on angst was a welcome divergence from grunge’s takeover. Spurred by the Cranberries’ American success and the re-release of “Dreams” and “Linger” as singles, by 1994, the album would hit No. 1 on the charts in the UK. Soon enough, O’Riordan couldn’t shop for underwear without being mobbed. Not since U2 a decade prior had an Irish band inspired such pandemonium. The band quickly capitalized on their popularity with a second album, 1994’s No Need to Argue, which featured the gigantic hit, “Zombie,” a protest anthem defined by O’Riordan’s commanding vocal performance.
Predictably, since they are the album’s poppiest moments, “Linger” and “Dreams” were the tracks on Everybody Else that would leave the largest impact through their ubiquity in film and television. Within a year of Everybody Else’s release, “Dreams” had become Angela Chase’s anthem on My So-Called Life; “Linger” later soundtracked a romantic flashback in the 2006 Adam Sandler comedy Click; a Cantonese cover of “Dreams” by Faye Wong appeared in Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express and became a still-beloved song in Asia.
One recent afternoon, desperate for some levity, I turned to Derry Girls, a silly sitcom about teens coming of age in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, right around the time that the Cranberries were ascending. At the end of the first season, “Dreams” plays over a powerful scene that contrasts the young friend group dancing while their parents watch a report of an explosion on television. The moment had a two-fold poignancy as a depiction of youthful innocence but also as a serendipitous tribute to O’Riordan, who died as a result of an accidental drowning the same month that the show premiered. “Dreams” burst through the screen and pierced through my veil of depression. Soon enough, Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We? was playing on repeat; O’Riordan’s commitment to being fully present in her emotional reality was like an intravenous drip of clarity, helping me understand that the only real way through pain is to face it head-on. The Cranberries held out a hand that gave me—and countless others—the strength to feel.