Are You Listening? Label: Sanctuary
When, on the opening track of her solo debut, Dolores O’Riordan sings, “Beautiful girl, won’t you be my inspiration,” it’s reasonable to presume that she’s addressing one of her two daughters. In recent years, it’s family, more than music, that’s been the focal point for the former lead singer of the Cranberries. After releasing 2001’s Wake Up and Smell the Coffee and watching their commercial decline continue unabated, the band took the title of their album to heart and called it a day; since then, O’Riordan has popped up on the occasional project, working alongside Zucchero, Jam & Spoon, and Angelo Badalamenti, but, otherwise, she’s just been keeping busy as a mother and wife and living the good life.
With Are You Listening?, O’Riordan finally takes her first step into a proper solo career, and it’s in no way a tentative one; this is a bold, powerful album, full of grandiose arrangements and production, mostly done by O’Riordan herself, along with the assistance of her co-producer, Dan Brodbeck (Garnet Rogers, Turn Off the Stars). Unfortunately, the biggest issue that stands between the record and success is one that O’Riordan really can’t do anything about: her instantly recognizable voice.
It only stands to reason that if you were enamored of the Cranberries, you’ll go running toward Are You Listening? with arms wide open...but, similarly, if you found O’Riordan’s voice to be the alt-rock equivalent of nails on a chalkboard, then the second you hear it, you’ll go, “Right, I’m checking out,” and that’ll be that. As such, it seems a terribly poor decision by Sanctuary to select “Ordinary Day” as the first single, since it does nothing to demonstrate a significant difference between O’Riordan’s solo material and what the Cranberries were doing before their break-up. While there’s a lot here that finds O’Riordan treading similar ground, it’s not like the album at a loss when it comes to providing something a little unique.
“Loser” is three catchy minutes of pop-rock that seem tailor-made for a future single. “In the Garden” and “Human Spirit” are two back-to-back piano-driven tracks, but while they both show O’Riordan trying something different, the latter is, musically, all over the damned place; it starts off sounding like an off-kilter carnival song, then throws in a thudding backbeat and mournful flute before tossing in some swirling strings -- and while it might sound like a sonic mess, the musical combination proves highly successful. The piano also pops up again on the dramatic “Black Widow.”
If you enjoyed the first two Cranberries albums but lost track of them after that, Are You Listening? should be on your list of records to investigate. Disappointingly, it’s a bit more No Need to Argue than Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We (read: If you prefer “Linger” to “Zombie,” check the return policy before you leave the store), but O’Riordan’s lyrics show that she’s grown along with those who were listening to her in the ‘90s, and if it doesn’t feel as though there’s been an equal amount of progress in her music, well, give her a break. It’s only her first solo album, after all.