When Dolores O’Riordan died in January 2018 it seemed the end of The Cranberries, the band she joined nearly 30 years earlier in Limerick, Ireland, and led to sales of more than 40 million and hits-in-perpetuity such as Zombie, Linger, and Dreams.
As much as the songwriting was shared with guitarist Noel Hogan, and the band had held firm through those years of massive sales, periods of relative quiet, and her solo career, O’Riordan was the voice, face and spiritual pulse of the group for everyone else.
But she’d left a swag of songs written with Hogan, many of which had her full vocals on demo tapes, ahead of the band’s planned return to the studio. And as Hogan listened back to them a month later he could hear something there that felt right, “like a gift that Dolores had left behind”, he says now.
Could they? Should they? When the estates and record companies of Michael Jackson and Prince, Elvis Presley and Jeff Buckley had trawled through the bottom drawers and shelves for anything to sell, there had been a smell of exploitation hanging over it all.
The Cranberries were better than that, surely, and anyway, these were not offcuts and discards; these were whole songs itching to go. Hogan went to her family – for confirmation, for approval. Really, could he have done anything else?
“No, no, we couldn’t have done it with that cloud hanging over us of not having their approval and feeling like we had stolen something from them,” he says, explaining the family had always been close to the band and O’Riordan’s brother Peter had been co-managing them since 2012.
“I spoke to him first and Peter got the [sound] files I didn’t have from New York and he said ‘I know she was so excited about doing this so it would be crazy not to finish it’. Then we spoke to the rest of the family, particularly her mum who she was very, very close with, and her mother was so delighted to hear it because she was worried we wouldn’t finish it. They said go ahead and do what you need to do and whatever else you need, we are here to do that.”
So Hogan, his bassplaying brother Mike, and drummer Fergal Lawler went into the studio in April with their long-time producer Stephen Street to finish a job. And to finish the band.
“We knew we were done after this. We’ll leave The Cranberries behind us now,” Hogan says. “We never, ever discussed replacing Dolores, or having someone else there. It’s only really in the last month, since we started doing this kind of [promotional] stuff that it’s come up. It was always the four of us and without one of us there, you wouldn’t consider it.”
Whatever you may think of the proprieties of a posthumous album, there is nothing about this record which suggests patchwork or a hastily cobbled together cash-in.
It sounds if anything like early Cranberries. The symbiosis of a band is there. As are the needs of three 40something men dealing with loss.
“We had to do it for Dolores’s memory, for the band, for the legacy of the band, so to come in at the end with some kind of sub-par album was not something we could do,” says Hogan. “It was almost like therapy at the time, but looking back on it now I can’t imagine how I could have coped last year if we hadn’t done this album.”
Therapy aside though, yes it was the first single from the record but it’s still a pretty ballsy move opening the album with a song called All Over Now.
“What we tried to do I guess, when we were picking singles and laying out the track listing, the trick was to forget about what we had been through. We looked at it as it Dolores was still here. Because the songs were written in the sense that this is going be just another Cranberries album,” says Hogan. “Dolores and I had worked hard for the last six months of Dolores’s life on the songs, so when we recorded them we kinda forgot that she wasn’t here.
“I’ve had a few people say you’re mad putting that as the single but I can’t let that dictate how we are going to approach this. You’ll find something in every song that says I can’t do that, I can’t do this, so we had to almost ignore the fact that Dolores had passed away and do it like she was here.”
In any case, perhaps provocatively but also perhaps accurately, Hogan says “I think what you will hear, as the single and album running order, is what I think Dolores would have gone with as well”.
In truth, it’s the only sensible way they could have approached it, otherwise the three men would have spent their time second and third guessing themselves and compromising all decisions.
“We could have ended up with an album of two songs,” he says. “We had, I guess, to be cold about it. But Dolores being the way she was as well, she loved a bit of controversy and rising people up, so I think she’d love all this. And that’s what her brothers said to us. They said she’d have loved this even more, the madness that surrounds this whole thing.”
But then to finish with In The End makes it clear there’s more being told here than just a running order.
“The funny thing was I knew what the first song and the last song would be, and the rest fell into place as we were developing them. But, as the cliché goes, it almost wrote itself to have that song as the last song,” Hogan says. “The subject matter is about things not being what they could be – the grass is always greener, that kind of thing - and it ended up being the last song we recorded.
“On that last day there were three of us in the studio for the last time and we were sitting there and realised that that’s the last time will ever do this as The Cranberries.”
The Cranberries’ In The End is out April 26.
A version of this story ran in the Sydney Morning Herald Arts on April 18