Voices from beyond the grave - ‘Keeping an artist’s flame alive is an unenviable task’
The Cranberries' new single featuring vocals from the late Dolores O'Riordan was well-received, but not all posthumous releases are worthy additions to an artist's legacy. Tanya Sweeney looks at the hits and misses
It was at once a joyous and bittersweet moment, and one that many of Dolores O'Riordan's fans didn't see coming. On the first anniversary of the singer's death, the Cranberries released 'All Over Now', a new song using vocals that O'Riordan had recorded before she died. The song, a bracing story of domestic abuse, has been hailed as one of their finest - a sad reminder that Dolores had much more creatively to give. The band has now completed an album's worth of new material, using demos they recorded in late 2017. On its release, the band will split permanently.
"The hardest part for us was, a couple of months after she'd passed, you start going back through the demos," guitarist Noel Hogan said earlier this week.
"It was hard at first to listen to Dolores coming through the speakers like that. I found you could only take x amount of time a day."
Fans may be rejoicing at what is likely to become O'Riordan's final swansong, and there's every chance she had been working with an album release in mind before her tragic death.
But it does soon raise the question: how best to deal with the artistic legacy of someone who is tragically no longer around to control it? There's no doubting that posthumous releases can be lucrative as fans scramble to savour that one last goodbye, and a homespun one at that.
The earning power of a recently departed and/or much-loved musician can run into the tens of millions. Michael Jackson's estate made $75m (€65m) in 2018 alone, thanks, in part, to a Cirque du Soleil show in Las Vegas, and the sale of a stake of the EMI music publishing catalogue.
Even 41 years after his death, Elvis Presley's estate received a $35m (€30m) boost according to Forbes, as Elvis's Memphis entertainment complex and Guesthouse at Graceland opened its doors. Bob Marley's estate earned $23m (€20m), boosted by House Of Marley audio products and the Marley Beverage Co.
Suffice to say that when it comes to executing a fitting and lasting legacy, some artist estates have fared better than others.
And it's hard not to wonder, is it fair to release a musician's creations when they aren't here to have a say in the end product? Does it, for better or worse, convey that an artist's best years were ahead of them, or invite in an uneasy truth - that they were nearing a creative plateau?
When the Kurt Cobain documentary Montage Of Heck was released in 2015, so too was the news that unreleased collaborations would finally see the light of day, including nods to ragtime and, somewhat incongruously, a sketch comedy routine. It's hard to believe that Cobain, who took his artistry seriously, might have intended the wider world to hear them. What he would have made of his teenage diaries, ratty cardigan and old car taking pride of place at the Newbridge Museum Of Style Icons in Kildare last year (an exhibition, granted, that was curated by his mother Wendy and daughter Frances) is anyone's guess.
In 2005, a duet between Biggie Smalls and Bob Marley did little to enhance either legacy.
Similarly, Jeff Buckley was on a stratospheric career climb when his life was cut short in 1997. By then, he had left just one stellar opus, Grace. A well-received album of sketches and demos Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk was released in 1998, though it was hastily followed by five live albums. In 2016, another round of Buckley's unpolished demos, You And I, surfaced (albeit under his mother Mary Guibert's guidance), with The Guardian dismissing it outright as "just another unnecessary posthumous release". In her defence, Guibert has said: "For me, it's far more soothing than throwing myself on a grave or slinging myself on my tear-stained pillow. I cry - I do cry - but this is a healthier outlet for me." A sign, perhaps, that the posthumous release is as much for those left behind as anyone else. But not everyone believes a posthumous release is a good idea: knowing how seriously she took the crafting of her work, Universal Music CEO David Joseph famously destroyed Amy Winehouse's demos for her third album, saving her the supposed potential ignominy of having associates needlessly tinker with them in the pursuit of a quick buck.
But sometimes, the posthumous release is a triumph, cementing an artist's reputation as someone tragically cut down at their creative peak: among the better ones are completed works like Joy Division's 'Love Will Tear Us Apart', Sam Cooke's 'A Change Is Gonna Come', or Otis Redding's 'Sittin' On The Dock Of The Bay'. Eva Cassidy, Nick Drake, and the Notorious BIG were tragically languishing in near enough obscurity before their work found a worldwide audience.
Yet the posthumous album release is becoming just one prong in an increasingly complicated system of managing a late artist's legacy.
Holograms of artists are very much on the rise, the performing hologram of Tupac Shakur, who died in 1996, was the talk of the 2012 Coachella music festival. Roy Orbison's hologram tour rounded into Dublin last April, and was relatively well received by fans.
A hologram of Amy Winehouse is due to tour North America in 2019 - an event that promises to be equal parts unsettling and poignant "Like she hasn't been exploited enough??! Let her rest in peace and stop tarnishing her legacy," tweeted one fan after the announcement of the tour.
Whether the hologram appearance looks set to become the money-spinning centrepiece of an artist's estate, or a mere technological flash in the pan, remains to be seen.
One thing is certain though, keeping an artist's flame alive long after they have gone is an unenviable task. Noel Hogan and the rest of the Cranberries appear to have delivered a fitting tribute, and as it's a song that pulses with energy and emotion, a sad reminder of what might have lay ahead for the band.