Fontaines DC: A Hero’s Death review – no rock self-mythologising, no punk pastiches, no bad songs

Fontaines DC are dead! Long live Fontaines DC! On their second album, the Irish garage rockers respond to their vast acclaim and stunning ascent with a bunch of cussed-sounding and compelling stormers bearing real emotional weight

★★★★☆

Fontaines DC mean what they say. “I’m gonna be big!” shouted Grian Chatten on Big, the opening track of their gripping debut Dogrel. It was meant to be sarcastic – “We felt that great ambition was a sickness,” they told the press – but later became a prophecy. The Irish quintet’s ascent was sharp and swift: catapulted from small clubs into big venues, playing sell-out shows; fetching up a spot in the Top 10 of the UK albums chart; a sea of rave reviews and a Mercury Prize nomination; making it onto nearly every best-of-the-year list by the end of 2019. Now, compare the words on Big’s brazen chorus to those of the song that opens A Hero’s Death, entitled I Don’t Belong. Simply put: “I don’t belong to anyone,” Chatten drawls, stretching the gimlet-eyed refrain like chewing gum between teeth.

It’s not the friendliest way to open the follow-up to your breakthrough album – appropriately enough, the music behind it takes the form of an unstoppable, gradually swarming grey cloud – but there’s reason for the stony, sombre introduction. Predictably, such a fast rise came at some cost. Cancelled gigs, fallings out, heavy drinking, little financial returns from their great success: life on tour for Fontaines DC sounded detrimental and, sometimes, fairly dangerous. “If you’re on your hundredth gig of the year and you haven’t slept much,” said Chatten of that period, “the worst thing you could possibly do for your own head is do a bad gig”, reportedly driven to unhealthy extremes whilst performing, like putting himself in an “actually quite toxic” headspace when the connection with the audience was lacking.

In light of this, you’re tempted to read something like Televised Mind as an obligatory tour-bus tirade, Chatten ostensibly bored of peddling “16 bars for the televised mind, Dublin line for the televised mind” – watching Chatten and co aggressively tear through the songs on Dogrel for a nonplussed Jimmy Fallon live audience on their US TV debut makes you think that ordeal provides the lyric’s inspiration – or, indeed, read Living In America in the same way, knocking off tour dates (“London’s fun / been and done”) in a Liam Gallagher-esque whine, the last syllable of “America” sung with a venomous contempt. Uh oh, you might think, it’s the age-old touring-is-hell rock album, a staple since the first rock’n’roll groups were shoved into minivans and expected to play the toilet circuit. However, throughout, it becomes clear that Fontaines DC appear intent on resisting any wistful self-mythologising, be it rock’s enduring hagiography or their own recent, lauded past: “That was the year of the sneer now the real thing’s here,” Chatten mutters beneath the title track’s warm staccato harmonies and arresting din.

Once an observer, passionately sketching tales of doomed cab drivers or the “ready-steady violence” before chucking-out time, he’s leaned harder into impressionistic imagery, writing opaque, inward-looking lyrics, avoiding vivid character studies, except the lamenting Sunny, where a father gives his son counsel or maybe just a monologuing earful with a mixture of weary regret and glum, passing shock: “You’d sooner draft me as a soldier than you’d have me for a dad,” he sighs. “Happy’s living in a closed eye / that’s where I like to be”. Likewise, their brisk, punky sound has been muted. In sharp contrast to their debut, which really did feel lashed by Dublin rain, you can tell A Hero’s Death was recorded in LA, most notably on the sad, sun-dappled Oh Such a Spring, swollen by dreamy reverb. They’re still not a band to dazzle you with brainy, episodic twists or wilfully spin their songs off their axises, even if they no longer resemble a pub band issuing tough garage-rock riffs at full tilt.

Once established, their melodies drive along, decorated by smart atmospheric touches and askew textures: the slow-moving hurricane of noise that sweeps through Living In America’s second half; the tremolo effect added to the lead guitar on A Lucid Dream, fighting a whooshing squall and cymbal crashes. It underlines how weird it was, and still is, to read critics and writers lumping them together with the new, ongoing post-punk revival that emerged in the mid-2010s. There’s something far less arty and more avowedly unpretentious about them – they’ve none of Protomartyr‘s fearsome, gothic disquiet or Idles’ ‘ere-we-go mischief, and someone needs to stop bringing up their supposed and inaudible debt to the Fall at every opportunity – yet when they do allude to alt-rock luminaries they approach them from unique angles.

Floating over strings and spooky, dah-da-da-la-la female backing vocals, Sunny’s similarity to Broadcast is overwhelmed by Fontaines’ signature languorous melancholy and rough, unshowy punch. Chatten’s delivery on You Said, washed over by guitars that seem to bend and crackle as if hazed by summer heat, recalls, once again, Liam Gallagher on one of Oasis’s ballads, but reduces the latter’s blanket wall of distortion to mild rumble. Reconfiguring the Strokes’ slick, streamlined pulse, via the first and second Velvet Underground albums, I Was Not Born sidesteps pastiche by instead focusing on Chatten’s town-crier topline. Elsewhere, they indulge themselves to sublime self-cannibalising: A Lucid Dream might as well be a rewrite or the dark, claustrophobic twin of their storming 2018 single Too Real.

Wondering whether or not A Hero’s Death is better than Dogrel thus seems besides the point. After all, the band responsible for both are too canny and too cussed to try and imitate themselves: “If people can’t accept it or don’t like it, then their band is gone,” Chatten warned ahead of the album’s release. Better to take them at their word on I Don’t Belong: they’re a band who “don’t wanna belong to anyone”, holding themselves to no one else’s standards but their own; they mean what they say. What’s more, those self-defined standards, judging by the uncomplicated joys on A Hero’s Death, appear to have been met very handsomely.

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