The poetic Dublin post-punk band are back with a daring new album.
Do bands have a “difficult second album” or a “difficult third album”? The myth seems to vary. You could argue it’s the fourth or fifth you’ve got to worry about in our attention-deficit culture. Maybe they’re all difficult right now: impossible to tour, marketed in disappearing magazines, played to a world deafened by anger.
And the hype will, without doubt, be hyperventilatingly breathless.
There will almost certainly be talk of a “journey” or an “evolution”. An impressively niche musical reference will probably be name-dropped at some point (“We were heavily influenced by 70s Orkney Islands psych rock this time round”). It will quite likely be 500 words longer than it needs to be. And the hype will, without doubt, be hyperventilatingly breathless.
What is less common is for the band in question to sound as if they are simultaneously breaking up with you and asking you outside for a fight. So it’s a novel experience to read the artist biography for A Hero’s Death, the second album from Fontaines DC. In it, the Irish five-piece warn fans not to expect a repeat of their acclaimed 2019 debut, Dogrel, and readily admit that its follow-up may “kill” the idea of the band for many. What’s more, they don’t seem to be terribly bothered about the fact. “This is us as people,” concludes vocalist Grian Chatten. “If people can’t accept it or don’t like it, then their band is gone.” In other words: it’s not us, it’s you.
Lockdown has allowed them room to reflect, pressing pause on a touring schedule that has rumbled on non-stop since before the release of their debut.
Softly spoken and somewhat diffident over a video call from Dublin, Chatten and guitarist Carlos O’Connell seem a world away from the stridency of that press release. Lockdown has allowed them room to reflect, pressing pause on a touring schedule that has rumbled on non-stop since before the release of their debut.
“There’s so many aspects and layers and levels to living in one place that I’d forgotten about,” says Chatten. “Even getting used to the corners of a room, having use for a washing machine, knowing what the street you’re going to walk down to get a coffee looks like. There’s elements you forget about, forget they matter.
A smart synthesis of post-punk old and new and the frayed romantic storytelling of the Pogues
Released in April last year, Dogrel quickly marked Fontaines DC out as a rare guitar band that matter. A smart synthesis of post-punk old and new (from PiL and the Fall to raucous contemporaries such as Girl Band and Protomartyr) and the frayed romantic storytelling of the Pogues, it offered a compelling portrait of an Ireland wrestling with its own sense of self. Chatten’s dense, chewy lyrics, rich with allusions to the modernist poets the band first bonded over while at music school, hinted at a world trapped between history and modernity, where cabbies, Catholics and drunks chafed against the gleaming gentrification of 21st-century Dublin.
For all that, Dogrel managed to be surprisingly anthemic too, with songs – the barrelling Boys in the Better Land, the staccato shoutalong of Big – that could as easily be belted out at closing time as assiduously studied on lyrics sites. Praise soon followed, with the album receiving comparisons to Arctic Monkeys’ similarly thrilling debut, as well as appearances on end-of-year best-of lists and a Mercury prize nomination. As the album found its way into the UK Top 10, Fontaines quickly graduated to bigger and bigger venues, selling out the 5,000-capacity O2 Academy Brixton earlier this year. (They’re looking to top that, booking a date at the twice-as-large Alexandra Palace for next spring, pandemic permitting.)
There are certain things that make no sense with it, like you’re completely struggling for cash throughout this massive tour.
Despite the plaudits and packed venues, though, life was far from easy. The extended lag between surface success and actual material security, typical for any hyped young band, was taking its toll. “When the record came out and it was in the Top 10 it didn’t mean we started making more money or anything like that, or living differently,” says O’Connell. “When you’re a band releasing your first album you get all this attention but then there are certain things that make no sense with it, like you’re completely struggling for cash throughout this massive tour. It shows how fragile it all is.”
I think I’d just said goodbye to my girlfriend and we hopped in the van and no one was talking with each other
Naturally, with these pressures came intra-band tensions. As cities and towns passed by in a blur of gigging, members started drinking too much and falling out. The tipping point, Chatten says, came in “the throes of a particularly negative tour of Europe. I think I’d just said goodbye to my girlfriend and we hopped in the van and no one was talking with each other,” he recalls. “We all had this pent-up aggression and resentment, and me and Carlos sat in the back of the van and just started holding hands for half-an-hour without saying anything. And in flooded the humanity again. The van filled up with that old romance that we lost without realising. That became a fertile ground for creativity.”
The debut’s bracing, direct punk has been replaced by something more textured and woozy.
The result was a record that Chatten describes, in the sort of slightly pseudy phrase that he alone seems to be able to pull off, as “an expression of our jilted selves”. Recorded less than a year on from the release of Dogrel, A Hero’s Death seems to reject many of the elements that lured listeners towards its predecessor. The debut’s bracing, direct punk has been replaced by something more textured and woozy, inspired by 90s hauntologists Broadcast and the psych-country of Lee Hazlewood. Chatten frequently abandons his characteristic sing-speak for a crooned, Nick Cave-y baritone. Even when things seem to return to something like normality, as on the thudding title track, it still goes and flummoxes you by chucking some doo-wop harmonies into the mix.
Most jarringly of all, Chatten’s depictions of Dublin have, for the most part, been set aside for something more introspective. Being away from home for an extended period of time meant that he didn’t feel comfortable documenting its changes, and he says he would never “write an album about shit coffee from petrol stations”, so instead the band looked inwards. “There’s a level of specificity and locale on the first album that we could have aped, but it would have been fraudulent and thereby useless as a piece of art,” Chatten says. “So I think that we wrote about the places within as opposed to the places without.”
I Don’t Belong seems to chime with a time when isolation and detachment feel like the norm.
All of this might sound alarming to anyone who listened to and loved Dogrel, but the charms of A Hero’s Death – the motorik thrum of Televised Mind, the babbling psych of A Lucid Dream – do eventually reveal themselves. Best of all are the songs where things slow to a crawl. Rueful closer No is genuinely pretty – not a word you’d usually associate with Fontaines DC – while the brooding opener I Don’t Belong, with its repeated mantra of “I don’t belong to anyone”, seems to chime with a time when isolation and detachment feel like the norm.
“That whole rhetoric that exists on the album of being your own person, that’s something that came up as a result of me feeling like I was being trapped in my political beliefs or my lifestyle on the road, on tour, being shoehorned or pigeonholed into a kind of genre,” Chatten says. He says he feels out of step with the rigid mindset of many of his fellow millennials, even if he agrees with what they believe in.
I think the left is particularly fractious and I think that’s because people can’t debate at my age.
“I share the same beliefs as a lot of people my age, but I think that the way they’re developed upon or the way that they’re used and shared could be improved,” he says. “The problem with the way things are going with the left, maybe it’s similar to the right, but I think the left is particularly fractious and I think that’s because people can’t debate [at] my age, you know?
“The education of debate is what makes you a good ambassador for your own truth. I’m of a generation of awful, awful ambassadors for the most part. And part of the reason that we’re robbed of debate is that echo chamber, that funnelling down to the right, funnelling down to the left. You hide in your cubby holes 4,000 miles away from each other’s beliefs.”
So, instead, Fontaines DC will continue down their own path, even if it alienates some. While they are not impervious to what others make of them – “There’s the great lie of the rock star who doesn’t care what anyone thinks. I think that’s an unhealthy fallacy to perpetuate,” Chatten says – their own self-validation is more important. At the moment, the band are revelling in the “hush” before people are able to pass judgment on their new direction.
There’s a beautiful sense of sharing a secret with your mates again.
“There’s a sense of conspiracy when you have something you haven’t released,” Chatten says. “There’s a beautiful sense of sharing a secret with your mates again. That’s a great glue for friendship, when no one knows that there’s a body in the boot of the car except for the people in the car. That’s what it feels like when you’re driving around with an album up your sleeve.”
How the world responds to their “body in the boot” remains to be seen. A Hero’s Death feels like a big swing, an album that on first listen might baffle but weeks, months or years later will quietly have cemented itself as a firm favourite. If it doesn’t break Fontaines DC, it might just make them.
“It’s not up to us to become the biggest band in the world, it just isn’t,” O’Connell says firmly. “It’s up to how the music resonates.”
A Hero’s Death is out Friday 31 July, on Partisan Records
The article was adapted from theguardian.com.