Album Review: Fontaines D.C. – A Hero’s Death

If there is one thing Fontaines D.C. have stressed on the eve of the release of their second album ‘A Hero’s Death’ it is that people should not simply expect part two of their outrageously good debut, ‘Dogrel’. This is a Fontaines D.C. reboot, not a sequel.

Singer Grian Chatten puts it quite buntly:

I do hope that people are shocked. This is us as people. If people can’t accept it or don’t like it, then their band is gone.

Firstly, and most importantly, the things that made ‘Dogrel’ so outstanding – its vibrancy and urgency, its rawness and brutality – have not dissipated one iota. What has changed is that there has been clear progression in the expression of these emotions and tones. There is a developed complexity in arrangements, in instrumentation – the introduction of a great deal more subtlety and grandeur.

The opening track, ‘I Don’t Belong’ is, as such, a statement of intention, a portend of what is to come. It is the band stating clearly that they are forging their own path and they will not be constrained artistically into providing a simple facsimile of their debut album in order to give the listeners what they expect and what they want. And yet somewhat ironically it is also the clearest bridge between the old and the new in style.

By contrast, this is followed by ‘Love Is The Main Thing’ – unexpectedly and seemingly romantic but with a layered complexity that drifts into a psychedelic fugue – shuffling percussion, twinkling guitars with Chatten’s tired and weary exposition seemingly delivering two antithetical statements in the one line – using tone and repetition to question what is being said:

Love is the main thing, love is the main thing, always the same thing

And indeed herein lies the defining element of this album: an intrusion of enhanced cynicism and fatigue tempered by a greater maturity. This no longer the young and angry boy gang of Dublin but a cohesive group of musicians dealing with a different, expansive world. From playing in 600 capacity venues to selling out 5000 seat venues within a matter of months last year, this has been an incredible journey for the band – a journey that almost lead to the death of the band:

We experienced full journeys where we didn’t speak to each other. It wasn’t because we didn’t love each other anymore. Our souls were kicking back against walls that were closing in. We had no space for ourselves. Our souls had nowhere to live, nowhere to lie.

‘A Hero’s Death’ is in that sense cathartic: is is building on the very foundations of the old, lost Fontaines D.C. and regrouping. The titular song sums up this metamorphic change: the process of dying to be reborn, a caterpillar changing into a butterfly. Chatten says of the song:

The song is a list of rules for the self, they’re principles for self-prescribed happiness that can often hang by a thread. It’s ostensibly a positive message, but with repetition comes different meanings, that’s what happens to mantras when you test them over and over.

There’s this balance between sincerity and insincerity as the song goes on and you see that in the music video as well. That’s why there’s a lot of shifting from major key to minor key. The idea was influenced by a lot of the advertising I was seeing – the repetitive nature of these uplifting messages that take on a surreal and scary feel the more you see them.

This is such a new sound for the band – doo wop backing and a bright, poppy bounce undercut by the lyrical ambiguity:

Providing a thicker more complex sound palette, ‘Televised Mind’ maintains the almost stream of consciousness poetic exhortations of Chatten, building and underlining his words with a repetition that blends with the droning canvas. Chatten says of the song:

This song is about the echo chamber, and how personality gets stripped away by surrounding approval. People’s opinions get reinforced by constant agreement, and we’re robbed of our ability to feel wrong. We’re never really given the education of our own fallibility. People feign these great beliefs in order to appear trendy, as opposed to independently arriving at their own thoughts.

The developed complexity of the instrumentation is evident in “A Lucid Dream’ which veers seamlessly from crashing, anarchic chaos to reflective dreamy sequences.

‘You Said’ and ‘Oh Such A Spring’ typify the number of slower paced songs on this album – infused with melancholia and displaying far more layered melodies: a certain sense of delicacy and reflection that captures the golden thread evident throughout the album. Here we have a Chatten that is restrained, calm and reflective. An anger that is no longer as explosive, perhaps, but is nonetheless just as sharp and incisive.

I watched all the folks go to work just to die and I wish I could go back to spring again.

And the other significant element of this vital album is the expanded musical palette of the band. ‘Living In America’ is an extraordinary and distinctive track: with a hint of a rockabilly, a hint of malevolence and a shimmering instrumentation. It has a surprising nod to the Specials with its echoing vocals and a rumbling sense of anger.

‘I Was Not Born’ is another bridge to the past with its cyclic guitar riffs and the urgent drone reminiscent of ‘Boys In The Better Land’: exciting heart-racing rock and roll that brings to mind Velvet Underground at their most frenetic.

I don’t think ‘A Hero’s Death’ is a complete reboot of Fontaines D.C nor is it a rejection of what made ‘Dogrel’ so good. It is a natural progression for Fontaines D.C.: it shows an ascendancy and growth while maintaining the sharp and visceral poetic vision that is at the core of the band. There is a maturity and complexity that makes this such a completely satisfying and coherent release.

‘A Hero’s Death’ is out on Friday, 31 July 2020 through Partisan Records and all the usual download/streaming sites. You can get a variety of formats direct from the band’s site.

Fontaines D.C. are:

Grian Chatten
Conor Deegan III
Carlos O’Connell
Conor Curley
Tom Coll

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