Classic Music Review: Stars (The Best of 1992-2002) by The Cranberries

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Simple music, simply played, occasionally captivating. Ignore the lyrics and you’re good to go. Click to buy.

Lately . . . well . . . Lately . . . I’ve been a-hankerin’. Yes, indeedy. A-hankerin’.

I also just watched High Noon with Gary Cooper, so I reckon you’ll have to forgive the bits of Old West vernacular. I’ll get it out of my system shortly. Yup.

The overwhelming majority of my reviews lately have come from the 60’s, with a smattering of reviews from the 50’s and 70’s. Sure, there was some great music back yonder, but what about the music of my generation: the 90’s and the 00’s? That’s what I’ve been a-hankerin’ fer—the music of my time! Instead of spending so much energy celebrating the music of hippies, greasers, surfers, mods and rockers, I think I should do more reviews on the glorious music of my millennial youth!

Hmm. Let’s try again. I think I should do more reviews on the pretty good music of my millennial youth!

No, that’s not right either. Uh, I think I should do more reviews on the occasionally okay music of my millennial youth!

God, I hate my parents for teaching me to always tell the truth. Who did they think they were raising, George Fucking Washington?

Okay. I wish I had the stomach to do more reviews of the generally shitty music of my millennial youth, no fucking exclamation point.

I grew up in an era bereft of musical consistency, saddled with a whole lot of 2.5 album bands and worse. Nirvana. No Doubt. The Goo Goo Dolls. The Foo Fighters. Even my favorite bands of my teens and twenties—Oasis, Fugazi, Belle and Sebastian, Death Cab for Cutie—were maddeningly inconsistent. I’m immune to Radiohead’s charms because I’m allergic to the sound of Thom Yorke’s voice, and don’t even remind me about Creed, Nickelback and the ludicrously lingering presence of U2. There were some great albums made during the 90’s, like Love Deluxe, Definitely Maybe, Post and Libre, and a few artists like June Tabor and Richard Thompson continued to build their legacies. The 00’s were flat-out rotten, which worked out since I spent most of that decade fucking everything in sight. The truth is that the millennial generation hasn’t experienced the quality of music or the sheer level of talent that was on display in the 1960’s and early 1970’s. We’re The Lost Generation of Music, looking for something, anything, and often overreacting to what turn out to be pretty weak new releases in our fruitless quest for substance.

Which brings to The Cranberries. I was very attached to them in my early teens. They were as inconsistent as the rest, but I clung onto the sound of Dolores O’Riordan’s alluring voice in the mad hope that someday they would take it to the next level. Perhaps this was the Irish half of me rising up in rebellion and rooting for one of my own to free us from the doldrums of the time; then again, I’m completely immune to Bono’s charms, so it probably had nothing to do with my half-heritage. The first Cranberries song that really turned me on was “I Can’t Be with You,” where Dolores’ Irish lilt is unsuppressed. I grew to love her banshee-like wails as I delved into their back catalog and began to follow them religiously, if not catholically. I own everything they’ve ever done, but I have to admit I haven’t listened to much of it in recent years. The Cranberries never really managed to put out a great album; their album pattern was 2-4 cool songs and 8-10 omigod-what-the-fuck-were-you-thinking songs. Dolores’ first solo effort, Are You Listening? follows the same formula: three great songs and the rest, well, not so great.

Stars: The Best of 1992-2002 is the one Cranberries album I would recommend, as it really does capture their best work. Not all of their best is particularly good, but there are several songs that are of high quality. Dolores O’Riordan is frequently a very engaging vocalist, not on the level of Sinead O’Connor, but certainly gifted. The rest of the band—Fergal Lawler on drums, Noel Hogan on guitar and Mike Hogan on bass—are tight and talented.

The Cranberries fall short because of a general lack of musical imagination and because their lyrics are really, really weak. Dolores O’Riordan, who eventually wound up writing most of the material, has an extremely limited vocabulary and tends to recycle the few words she has mastered; when she tries to get philosophical and deep, the results are often ludicrous. She manages to make up for her weakness in lyrics with her emotional-intuitive singing style, which often captures emotions she is unable to express in words. As for The Cranberries’ musical development, it’s virtually non-existent. What you heard in 2002 isn’t substantially different from what you heard in 1992 in terms of chord structure or melody. The Cranberries stick to a pretty simple musical formula, and generally, it works for them.

Stars is thankfully arranged in chronological order except for the “fan selection song,” so if there had been development, you would have seen it here. The one constant is that Dolores O’Riordan always wrote the lyrics; beginning with their second album, No Need to Argue, she also started writing most or all the music. As she’s not a very good lyricist and because her music tends to follow a very restrictive formula, The Cranberries remained stuck in neutral throughout the decade. If you’re looking for a constantly growing and diversifying band of artists, look elsewhere. If you like simple melodies tightly played and the sound of an Irish lass singing with feeling, you might like The Cranberries.

“Dreams”: Stars begins with their best-known song, which also happens to be their best song, period. “Dreams” demonstrates the truism that great rock is more about energy and performance than chordal complexity. The structure is your basic I-IV-V-I blues structure that only varies in the instrumental bridge after the first verse. What makes the song so intensely exciting is the combination of dynamic variation, the simple bass and guitar riffs played by the Hogan brothers, Fergal Lawler’s ready-to-burst drum attack and Dolores O’Riordan’s exquisite voice. While her vocal here is more layered than the vocals on The Cranberries’ later albums, it works beautifully in the context of the arrangement. Dolores delivers the first two lines of the verses in a thin voice at the upper end of her range, then after a sharp attack on the drums from Fergal, sings the closing lines in beautiful harmony with her more natural singing voice. This simple structure builds tension through the shifts from softer to louder and the often unexpected drum bursts; you have the feeling throughout that The Cranberries are waiting to have a collective orgasm. They finally get there in the fade, when Dolores lets that gorgeous Irish wail rise from the bottom of her soul and Fergal drives the band to a new level of intensity. While the album Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We? often crosses the line into overproduction, “Dreams” is too powerful a performance to let anything stand its way.

“Linger”: Speaking of overproduction, the second hit from Everybody Else is drowned in a sentimental string arrangement that turns me off the second I hear it. It would have been a much better song without all that crap: just guitar, soft drums and bass would have done it. The lyrics are full of girl band clichés like “you’ve got me wrapped around your finger” and “I’m a fool for you,” but because most of the people in my generation are completely unaware of anything that existed before Nirvana and Friends, Dolores could get away with the recycling.

“Zombie”: The Cranberries decided to go darker and starker on their second album, No Need to Argue, with mixed results. “Zombie” was their biggest seller, and certain aspects of this song about the bombing deaths of two children at the hands of the IRA are commendable. Dolores’ vocal is unabashedly Irish, with all the intense passion and indignation that an angry Irish woman can generate (I never wanted to piss off my Irish grandmother). The lyrics, however, could have been much stronger and more articulate. Take the lines, “With their tanks and their bombs/And their bombs and their guns,” and ask yourself why Dolores had to repeat “bombs” after the conjunction. Couldn’t she think of another weapon? It sounds like she’s just babbling or couldn’t be bothered with details while under the influence of emotion. As described in my review of Sinead O’Connor’s latest, Dolores suffers from the same problem Sinead has with lyrics: a lack of negative capability, the inability to prevent emotion from interfering with the art and the power of the message. Also irritating is her choice to insert a series of “doo-doo-doo” vocalizations between the verses; inserting a pop cliché in a protest song diminishes the protest. A better choice would have been to allow Noel Hogan to play a mournful guitar riff. This is a classic example of Dolores having some good fragments floating around in her head (the zombie image and her historical references) but lacking the ability to put those pieces together to create a satisfying whole.

“Ode to My Family”: Continuing the four-chord limit established in “Linger” and “Zombie” and again letting Dolores sing “doo-doo-doo” instead of using an instrument, we have “Ode to My Family,” a curious ode indeed. The lyrics also continue the pattern of incomplete and random thought:

Understand what I’ve become
It wasn’t my design
And people everywhere think
Something better than I am
But I miss you, I miss
‘Cause I liked it, I liked it
When I was out there
D’you know this, d’you know
You did not find me, you did not find
Does anyone care?

Huh?

“I Can’t Be with You”: Why does Dolores always have to “doo-doo-doo” in a song? Oh, well. Once we get past that grating habit, “I Can’t Be with You” has enough energy and a great drum attack from Fergal Lawler to make it a keeper. Dolores’ lilt on this song is delightfully present, especially on the line, “I wanted to be the mother of your child.” The passion with which she delivers that line also tells you a lot about Dolores O’Riordan and her conservative Catholicism; to her, to become a mother is the ultimate expression of love and commitment to the man in the relationship. That’s certainly not my view of life and love, but acknowledging that orientation may explain some of the conservatism of The Cranberries’ approach to music. With the four-chord pattern repeated in verse and chorus, “I Can’t Be with You” isn’t groundbreaking, but I still like the song, even if the emotions evoked are more teenage nostalgia than aesthetic appreciation.

“Ridiculous Thoughts”: The fourth single from No Need to Argue continues the four-chord limit and the pattern of disconnected lyrics. Under the gibberish are feelings of anger and betrayal expressed more clearly in voice than language. Skip it.

“Salvation”: Moving onto To the Faithful Departed, “Salvation” is a three-chord number that requires little effort on the guitar, as the Em-Cmaj7-G6 combination doesn’t exactly require your fingers to do magic tricks. But as I said with “Dreams,” energy is more important than complexity when it comes to rock ‘n’ roll and “Salvation” definitely has the energy. Lyrically it’s an anti-heroin song that has the virtue of straightforwardness, and Fergal’s drums are ab-fab, filling the soundscape with spinning cymbals and frenetic pounding of the kit. The final bridge adds a horn section which adds very little beyond extending the instrumental palette a teensy bit.

“Free to Decide”: While the varied instrumentation and deeper bottom is deeply appreciated, and Dolores delivers a strong and steady vocal, the lyrics are godawful, a mix of some pretty good lines with tortured syntax and irrelevant updates on current events:

You must have nothing more
With your time to do
There’s a war in Russia and Sarajevo too
So to hell with all your thinking
And to hell with your narrow mind
You’re so distracted from the real thing
You should leave your life behind

What’s amazing is I still like the song, three chords and all. Once again, energy compensates.

When You’re Gone: Dolores wrote a lot of songs about missing her partner. “When You’re Gone” is styled after girl music of the early 60’s like “Angel Baby” and others; it doesn’t quite get to doo-wop despite the doo-doo-wops. The repeated imagery that “everything’s stinking” is an exceptionally poor choice of words in the context, but if you balance that against the drumming, it’s a wash. Fergal Lawler is a really a very good drummer and much more expressive than most.

“Hollywood”: The Cranberries go grunge with this dissonant three-chord track. The link to “Hollywood” is tenuous at best; Dolores has a picture in her head of her bedroom. That’s about it. Really. I think they were retrying to capture the feel of “Zombie” and missed by a mile; there’s far more heat than substance here.

“Promises”: Dolores is really over the top on this song from Bury the Hatchet, expressing deep bitterness over divorce. Dolores has been married continuously for almost twenty years, so I can only interpret this as a conservative Catholic rant. Ireland is one of the most difficult places in the known universe to obtain a divorce (or an abortion), as they take their Catholicism very seriously and there is no real separation of church and state. The stance Dolores takes in this song is almost like she has placed herself in the position of avenging angel:

You better believe I’m coming
You better believe what I say
You better hold on to your promises
Because you bet, you’ll get what you deserve
She’s going to leave him over
She’s gonna take her love away
So much for your eternal vows, well
It does not matter anyway

How anyone can believe that people do not grow and change is beyond me, but who am I to question a religious zealot?

“Animal Instinct”: This song is supposed to be about motherhood, which I suppose is an “animal instinct,” but calling it that lessens its significance. The lyrics are simplistic, but express some of the basic concerns of a mother without too many detours. The best part of the song is the strong bass performance from Mike Hogan. The melody is typically Cranberry: pleasant and unremarkable.

“Just My Imagination”: No, they’re not doing a Temptations cover. This “Just My Imagination” is a pleasant little acoustic number with another set of unremarkable lyrics. The reference to “the man above” sets my teeth on edge, but once again, Fergal and Mike give the song a good solid groove.

“You and Me”: Bury the Hatchet was recorded after The Cranberries’ first hiatus, occasioned by Dolores’ need to heal from stress-related diseases. Her cure was to get back to the basics of life, away from the bullshit of fame and back to the lovely simplicity of family. Although her overuse of the word “eternally” and its loaded meaning doesn’t float my boat, I appreciate the sentiment in this pretty little song that family can be a source of healing (though to say it’s “forever” is a classic example of generalizations that ring false, as the existence of many broken and dysfunctional families demonstrates).

“Analyse”: By the time Wake Up and Smell the Coffee was released, The Cranberries were definitely on the slide, musically and commercially. You can only go so far without much in the way of lyrical talent or musical imagination, and their last album before the lengthier split showed a band running on fumes. The music on “Analyse” is 100% predictable and the lyrics combine childishness with the jarring introduction of “big words”:

For you I open my eyes
To the beauty I see
We will pray, we will stay
Wide open

Don’t analyze
Don’t analyze
Don’t go that way
Don’t lead that way
That would paralyze your evolution

I didn’t think Catholics believed in evolution, so I’ll conclude that this is another sloppy product from Dolores’ non-verbal center.

“Time Is Ticking Out”: The Cranberries attempt socio-environmental relevance and fall flat on their mugs. The cliché use of a ticking clock that opens the piece is a harbinger of trouble ahead, as validated by the throw-everything-in-but-the-kitchen-sink lyrics:

We’d better think about the consequences
We’d better think about the global senses
The time went out, the time went out

What about Chernobyl?
What about radiation?
We don’t know, we don’t know

What about deprivation?
Gluttony, the human nation?
We don’t know, we don’t know
For me love is all, for me love is all
For me love is all, for me love is all

“This is the Day”: One more try at a grunge/gothic sound collapses pretty quickly in a completely weird song with the most nonsensical lyrics Dolores ever wrote, which is really saying something. She sets it up as a message to a friend, but right off the bat it makes you wonder when she says “I never had a friend like you/This is the day/Your skin is white, your eyes are blue.” Dolores never knew a white woman in Ireland? Huh? The rest is just a religious rant from an overzealous Catholic, and it’s quite offensive when she places herself in the role of personal savior:

Faith will save you
Faith will save you
Faith will save you
Stay safe, stay safe, stay safe

Provoke thy grace into my mind
This is the day
Provoke thy grace, thou are divine
This is the day

Don’t be insecure
I’ll be at your door
I will always be there for you

“Daffodil Lament”: This song from No Need to Argue was chosen for inclusion through a fan vote. Clocking in at over six minutes, it’s certainly the most elaborate song they ever did, sort of a dramatic monologue extended to suite form. It is unusual in the sense that the lyrics form a clear progression to a satisfying whole, moving from thoughts that keep Dolores awake to the realization that trying to save a dead relationship isn’t a healthy thing to do. Embedded in the lyrics is the belief that there is “the one” with whom we are destined to spend the rest of our lives, a questionable theory at best, but at least it’s a theory. Having ended the relationship, she sings, “the daffodils look lovely today.” The music is not at all complex, consisting of three chords, pipe-like drones and a few odd effects here and there; the last segment sounds like something straight out of a mass with suitable cathedral acoustics. I suppose the song was voted in for its relative complexity, with relative being the operative word. Compared to other suites, like Tull’s “Baker Street Muse” or Genesis’ “The Musical Box,” this is pretty weak stuff.

“New York, New York”: The Cranberries’ contribution to 9/11 art is a complete and utter waste of time and sounds like a tawdry attempt to capitalize on a tragedy without adding a whit of insight as to the cause. “There’s nothing I can say/I can only pray” is advice Dolores O’Riordan should have taken more seriously.

“Stars”: The last song on the album is one of their better contributions and a great lesson for all. Every artist has a sweet spot: some are tiny spots, and some are quite expansive. Miles Davis, The Beatles, Jethro Tull and a few others had very expansive sweet spots, capable of producing great music that crossed genres and broke boundaries. The Cranberries have a very narrow sweet spot: sweet and simple pop-rock melodies that are pleasing to the ear, supported by steady rhythms and inoffensive lyrics. When Dolores O’Riordan tries to get deep or philosophical, the results are ludicrous; she’s at her best when she expresses simple human emotions in the context of day-to-day experience. “Stars” is such a song and the best thing they’d done since “Dreams.” Dolores’ voice is superb here, especially on the lines expressing vulnerability (“And still I have my weaknesses/And still I have my strength/And still I have my ugliness.”). The band is equally strong on this piece, with a good solid bass, sharp guitar cuts and solid drumming from Fergal.

Oh, that they would have exited the stage with “Stars.” Unfortunately, they reunited and produced the album Roses, earning a rather unpleasant review from this critic. In my research for this album, I happened to come across the tidbit that Dolores O’Riordan is one of the ten richest women in Ireland. Gosh, I hope this reunion had nothing to do with money!

Well, a girl can dream, can’t she?

I think I’m done a-hankering.

2 responses

  1. […] The Cranberries, Stars: Best of 1992-2002 […]

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