The Big Listen: Fontaines D.C. – A Hero’s Death

The boys in the better land take an axe to their own image on a murky, brooding second album that establishes a new path for the Dublin five-piece.

Conor Curley of Fontaines DC

Conor Curley. Image: Burak Cingi / Redferns

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Weary from the road and determined not to be pigeonholed, Fontaines DC deliver a second album that's dark, disquieting and quite brilliant.  

“I do hope people are shocked,” says Fontaines D.C. frontman Grian Chatten of A Hero’s Death, the Dublin band’s second album in as many years. “This is us as people. If people can’t accept it or don’t like it, their band is gone.”

It’s a bold statement on behalf of five men whose debut album, Dogrel, was one of the most thrilling, eloquent and identifiable rock ‘n’ roll records in recent years. It earned Fontaines a Mercury Prize nomination and gatecrashed the Top 10 of the UK Album Chart. To hell with all that, though. This is a new beginning, heralded by a playfully prescient album title.

By the end of last year, the success of Dogrel had become a millstone, the relentless tour schedule leading to inevitable burnout. At one point, running on hard liquor and adrenaline, Chatten reportedly went eight days without sleep, before the band were forced to cancel a string of dates and return to Ireland. There, the writing of album two began, the process ultimately saving them from themselves.

So it’s unsurprising that a sense of dislocation haunts A Hero’s Death, the title taken from The Hostage by Dublin playwright Brendan Behan. It’s the sound of a band refusing to wear the voice of a generation tag, tearing down their own myth with relish.

With Dan Carey again at the desk, following an unsuccessful stint with Nick Cave and Idles producer Nick Launay, A Hero’s Death is several shades darker than its predecessor, a gothic fog that draws upon Joy Division and early Echo & The Bunnymen and U2 records. There are similarities with Dublin contemporaries The Murder Capital’s exceptional debut When I Have Fears, too.

The crepuscular mood sets in from the sludgy Stooges-referencing two-chord opening to I Don’t Belong, a title if ever there was one that hints at rejection of identity. It’s a million miles from Big, the chest-beating flag in the ground that ushered in Dogrel, its titular phrase becoming a defiant mantra.

A Hero's Death Fontaines DC

The percussive fuzz rhythm and lacerating tremolo of second single Televised Mind whip up an electrifying, claustrophobic atmosphere. As Conor Deegan and Tom Coll set a breathless rhythm, Chatten is at his enigmatic peak: “Swipe your thoughts from Broadway, Turn ideals to cabaret, Water dreams of yesterday”.

Elsewhere, the band’s love of surf guitar reveals itself. A Lucid Dream clatters along at a thrilling clip, and it’s almost lost in the barrage when Chatten observes vividly, “I was there when the rain changed direction and fled to play tricks with your hair”. The frantic guitar work quickens the pulse as the vocalist swipes, most likely at himself and his bandmates, “Ah, you’re all prone to being anyone else other than you”.

The gloom lifts momentarily for a sedate mid-album pairing, Chatten’s stirring poeticism, influenced by James Joyce and William Yeats, given space to permeate. There’s a little of Joey Santiago in Carlos O’Connell and Conor Curley’s unison bends on You Said, and the band slip into 3/4 on the reflective Oh Such A Spring, synth pads sweeping beneath a sweet arpeggio and Chatten’s yearning accounts of sailors down by the docks “drinking American wine”. The austere finish finds him in solitude: “The clouds cleared up, The sun hit the sky, I watched all the folks go to work just to die, And I wished I could go back to spring again”.

Grian Chatten Fontaines DC
Grian Chatten. Image: Xavi Torrent / Redferns

The title track borrows the riff from Last Nite by The Strokes, ergo Tom Petty‘s American Girl, but it’s a scintillating piece of work, Chatten delivering hard-earned lessons in life over jagged chords and dreamy doo-wop backing vocals. Its hopeful message of “Life ain’t always empty” is repeated ad infinitum, something to hold on to as certainty crumbles.

The horizons on A Hero’s Death are broader than Dogrel‘s. Living In America evokes a bustling metropolis where all human life is visible through its unsettling soup of guttural downtuned notes and bridge-pickup stabs. On the driving I Was Not Born, a bristling Chatten asserts his autonomy: “I was not brought into this world to do another man’s bidding”. O’Connell and Curley’s urgent tremolo picking carries the song towards a crescendo that never quite arrives, evidence of a band learning that restraint is a potent weapon.

No is a quite brilliant ending, unpolished balladry that arrives with a tangle of muted rhythm guitars and Chatten’s scabrous croon: “You have hurt and you have lost/ You’re acquainted with the cost”. It’s a shaft of light in the black of the storm as the singer repeats the empathetic couplet “Even though you don’t know/ you feel”.

Conor Deegan III and Carlos O'Connell of Fontaines D.C.
Bassist Conor Deegan III (L) and guitarist Carlos O’Connell of Fontaines D.C.. Image: Jim Bennett / FilmMagic

Chatten is unquestionably a writer of the rarest kind, a poet whose lambent evocations carry a flair for the universal. A Hero’s Death sees him bending those talents in new directions.

Some people will no doubt wish Fontaines D.C. had returned from that world tour and set straight to work on Dogrel part two. That would have been ill advised, impossible even. The Dubliners are not the same people who made that precocious, adrenal record. And why repeat yourself, anyway?

A Hero’s Death may well document the light fading on the first life cycle of a band, but it’s something better and more important than that – it’s the conception of a new one, more nuanced, absorbing and emotionally developed. These Irish heroes are not dead, they’re reborn.

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