A Hero's Disruption
Fontaines D.C’s A Hero’s Death comes just over a year after Dogrel, their debut album that made them the flagship band for Ireland’s post-punk revival. Songs like ‘Big’ and ‘Boys in the Better Land’ were raw and immediate, while the looming and industrial ‘Too Real’ was the first signal that the band had more in their locker than thrashing three-chord punk. Add to this the observational poetry and Dublin drawl of frontman Grian Chatten and you’ve got a band that went from The Workman’s Club in Temple Bar to Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show in New York in a little over a year. However, as is often the case for Irish artists, international acclaim means some national criticism. Not all of which was misplaced. Dogrel, while certainly attention grabbing, suffered as a body of work due to a lack of musical cohesion. The youthful energy of tracks like ‘Liberty Belle’ felt outgrown by the mature songwriting on ‘Television Screens’ or ‘The Lotts’. Chatten, while undoubtedly eloquent, tended to submit to caricature when playing the role of Dublin’s resident dive-bar poet. But, such localism was never going to be sustainable after a year spent everywhere but Dublin. While its predecessor focused heavily on stories and characters from the Irish capital, A Hero’s Death looks inwards, reflecting on the effects of Dogrel’s success on relationships, with others and with oneself.
So much of this album is reactionary. Notably, the opening track ‘I Don’t Belong’. It has a slow and spacious beginning, directly contrasting the feral energy of ‘Big’, which inhabited the same spot on Dogrel. This introductory statement is preparation for a collection of songs that croon and sway rather than bark and bite. What is impressive is that the five-piece have managed to change pace without sacrificing their power. ‘Love is the Main Thing’ is a throbbing wall of sound, with a drumbeat like a nervous heart. ‘Living in America’ is colossal. It drones and pounds with panting guitars and dwells in a low register that feels like home to Chatten’s monotone vocal delivery. In softer moments, some classic musicianship shines through, like the pretty and precise guitar work on ‘Oh Such A Spring’. Beach Boys-inspired harmonies are laced throughout the album, used gorgeously on the penultimate track, ‘Sunny’. ‘A Lucid Dream’ is a personal favourite. It’s a slightly psychedelic whirlwind of a track, with an enthrallingly off-kilter vocal melody. A tranquillised bridge evokes The Doors as the hook returns with a vengeance.
Dan Carey was kept on for production duties after what I thought was a mixed bag on Dogrel, although through no fault of his own. The lack of musical consistency meant Carey’s production style was suited to some tracks, while others suffered. There are no such issues on A Hero’s Death. The low-end is luscious, providing a perfect foundation for guitars that cut through the mix, echo and shriek. Dogrel’s vocals were completely dry and starkly separate from the music. This caused them to feel overly exposed and, at times, awkward. A touch of reverb here has resulted in more assured performances that blend with the instrumentation.
Many have deemed Grian Chatten the heir to the throne of great Irish lyricists, a throne previously occupied by the likes of Geldof and MacGowan. While Dogrel displayed his exceptional talent as an observer, it too often felt like Chatten was hiding behind an adopted character. He’s certainly not the first and he won’t be the last to do so. Dublin is a city drenched in literary history, but often, people can drown in it. A year away from his hometown has resulted in a more introspective approach this time around. His lyrical voice is clearer and while the language is simpler, the statements carry more. The opening mantra, ‘I don’t belong to anyone’, is Chatten rejecting his heirship. A discomfort with success and adoration is beautifully put on ‘Sunny’ with the line, ‘Into a dream I was tilted, into a dream I fell’. The title track, ‘A Hero’s Death’ may initially sound like Chatten preaching to the listener. In the context of the record, however, it is clear that the singer is addressing himself. Throughout the album, Chatten challenges himself to be a better person and a better artist, reminding himself, as we all must do at times, that ‘Life ain’t always empty’.
Punk is the art of disruption. Disrupting conventions, attitudes and expectations. A Hero’s Death will be disappointing to those who saw Fontaines D.C. only as the saviours of raw and immediate punk music, but I get the impression the band are happy to disrupt a few expectations. The album is soft, slow and sonically lush. The lyrics are honest, vulnerable and introspective. In this context, that’s as punk as you can get.
Published on 30 July 2020
Jake Tiernan is bass-player with the band Turnstiles and writes a blog at https://waxlyrical667328945.wordpress.com. He was a participant in the Journal of Music/Galway City and County Council Music Writer Mentoring Scheme in 2019.