The Cranberries' 'Linger': A Wistful '90s Gem That's Pure Irish Poetry
Monday (Jan. 15) in pubs across Ireland, the countrymen and women of Dolores O’Riordan, the Cranberries singer who died earlier that day at age 46, toasted one of their country's finest daughters. It’s hard not to wish you were there, memorializing the voice and spirit that produced some of the best songs of the '90s.
O’Riordan seemed to possess a supernatural quality and fitful, rebel spirit. An Irish firecracker wailing with the wind, igniting emotional bombs via windswept, soaring choruses. She was a Limerick tough, the youngest in a family of seven children. And her voice was the musical equivalent of horses running across the green plains of County Kerry. There is perhaps no internationally renowned singer with such an unmistakably Irish vocal stamp than O’Riordan, and that essence is distilled to a jigger in “Linger.”
The song has stiff competition in the grandiose alt-pop category that bloomed in the early ‘90s: R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” and “Everybody Hurts”; Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You”; the Sundays’ “Here’s Where the Story Ends”; even the Britpop band the Verve’s masterwork “Bittersweet Symphony.” Then there’s era-specific tracks from Sheryl Crow (“If It Makes You Happy”), the Wallflowers (“One Headlight”) and Counting Crows (“Long December”) that, for one reason or another, strike similar heartstrings. But for many, “Linger” was the one.
It was one of the first songs the band completed after O’Riordan joined, when they were just in their late teens. It’s a tale of love, deceit and the lingering feelings of desire for an impossible relationship, an impossible situation, and an impossible partner who broke the contract of love. “It's ruining every day / For me I swore I would be true / And fellow, so did you / So why were you holding her hand? / Is that the way we stand?” asks O’Riordan. “Were you lying all the time? / Was it just a game to you?…” Yeah, you don't want to be on O’Riordan’s emotional hit list.
Then the fireworks come. The twinkling guitars and staccato strings rise with her oh-so-recognizable voice and she nails the unforgettable lyrics thousands of fans have sang back to her at festivals and concerts across the globe these past 25 years: “But I’m in so deep / You know I'm such a fool for you / You've got me wrapped around your finger / Do you have to let it linger? Do you have to, do you have to, do have to let it linger?” [Shakes head. Places palm over heart.]
As a kid, this was one of my first introductions to wistful alt-rock drama. In an era of male-dominated guitar rock, I discovered the Cranberries by sneaking into my older sisters’ rooms and listening to their CDs. The cover of the Cranberries’ debut, Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can't We?, released at the height of the grunge era in March 1993, showed the band cloaked in black, perched on a couch (as would their next release... they liked couches). It was easy to sit in awe of a vocalist commanding so much emotional power, and so in control of her dynamic, unique instrument. It's a voice that left deep and lasting marks.
“Linger,” along with the LP’s other single “Dreams,” would launch the band’s career -- and go on to sell five million copies worldwide. The group would ultimately sell over 40 million records across the globe. The grittier rocker “Zombie” would become perhaps their most recognizable song, but it’s always their dreamy side that stunned the most—the gliding choruses and lyrics that were like a swan dive off the Cliffs of Moher.
O’Riordan and the Cranberries were a source of immense pride for the Irish. The President of Ireland, Michael Higgins, released a statement upon news of her death: "O’Riordan and the Cranberries had an immense influence on rock and pop music in Ireland and internationally. I recall with fondness the late Limerick TD Jim Kemmy’s introduction of her and the Cranberries to me, and the pride he and so many others took in their successes. To all those who follow and support Irish music, Irish musicians and the performing arts her death will be a big loss."
In 2004, I studied abroad in Cork, Ireland. I drank Murphy’s Stout at a bar off campus from the University of County Cork, called The Thirsty Scholar, and they played the Cranberries non-stop. I made a friend who worked at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin, and when I visited we went out in Temple Bar, the city’s boho bar district; again, O’Riordan’s voice was everywhere. That voice was uniquely Irish. “If I started to sing, then all the others in the room would stop and listen,” she told Rolling Stone in ’95. “I always had a strong Irish accent, too. People often ask me why I sing with a strong Irish accent. I suppose when I was five years old, I spoke with a strong Irish accent, so I sang with one, too.”
As a student of Irish poets and literature, her songs incorporated yodeling and Gaelic words unknown to most. Their albums included songs like “Ode to My Family,” which creates a waterfall of melodies honoring her mother, father and lineage, and the sweeping “Dreams” with its traditional Irish yodeling. Even when their music touched the world, it still felt uniquely Irish, uniquely Limerick, a western port town known for its rebellions against British rule. The city’s motto is “Urbs Antiqua Fuit Studiisque Asperrima Belli” or “There was an ancient city very fierce in the skills of war.” O’Riordan’s voice was a graceful instrument of emotional warfare.
That’s how we should all remember her. Barefoot and strutting onstage, an Irish warrior poet with a bleached blonde pixie cut, gold chain necklace, singing without a flinch, as if it were ordained.
The band would go on hiatus following the release of 2001's Wake Up and Smell the Coffee, and O'Riordan would embark a solo career. The Cranberries reunited in 2009, releasing 2012's Roses and their latest album, 2017's Something Else.
But for many, “Linger” remains their touchstone.
During that semester abroad in Ireland, I took a bus to Dingle, a small port town in Southwestern Ireland, just down the coast from Limerick. The water was tropical-looking, swirls of blue, clear and bright like the Caribbean, the hills a thousand shades of green. My first afternoon, on a walk across miles of old hedgerows, a gypsy mutt chased me across the grass, smiling at me, nipping my heels and waiting for the game to start again.
That night, in a drizzling rain, a ragtag group of travelers walked from the farmhouse hostel down an old stone road into town. We entered a pub and bellied up to whiskeys and stouts. Everyone was enjoying the “Craic," Gaelic for “What’s happening?” “What’s good?” Shortly after a band of older men—probably 50 and 60-somethings—stood near the rock fireplace and performed a cover of “Linger” on acoustic guitars, mandolin and violin. Another man stood in front, in his thick sweater and ragged newsboy cap, singing the verses. Then the whole bar joined him for the choruses, as the rain fell outside. “Do you have to let it linger / Do you have to / Do you have to let it linger?” That night on the walk back to the hostel, the clouds broke and the stars shone bright in the Irish mist.
O’Riordan's legacy will not just linger, but live on forever, like the spirit of a Irish patron saint.