Rock bands aren’t supposed to get big anymore, but apparently no one told Fontaines D.C. The young Dublin quintet took the world by storm just over a year ago with their bracing mixture of raw guitar-beating energy and a distinctly Irish sense of poetry. Fronted by Grian Chatten, who speak-sings in a heavy brogue, the band came across like a barroom philosopher deep in his cups at the local dive: erudite, eloquent, and prone to slipping into haranguing tangents and conversational alleyways. Their debut album Dogrel cracked the top five of the Irish Albums Chart and the top 10 of the UK Albums Chart. It was nominated for a Mercury Prize. A little website called Stereogum named it one of the 10 best albums of 2019. Where could Fontaines D.C. go from there?
The answer, judging by their new album A Hero’s Death, is upwards and inwards. Where Dogrel began with the half-ironic mission statement “Big” — “My childhood was small/ But I’m gonna be big,” Chatten memorably proclaimed — A Hero’s Death has an opening thesis of its own. “I don’t belong to anyone/ I don’t belong to anyone/ I don’t belong to anyone/ I don’t wanna belong to anyone,” Chatten repeats over and over again on the leadoff track called — what else? — “I Don’t Belong.”
It’s a defiant fuck-you to the shackles of expectation and possessive fans. Touring America in support of Dogrel, the band was “under threat of losing our identity,” Chatten told NME in a recent interview. “People tell you that your music means a lot to them and you find it hard to empathize and relate to it, or even understand it because they’re the thirteenth person who’s done that in the last hour. It’s very confusing, but that sense of expectation obviously lies very heavily on my subconscious for me to then write about it.”
So “I Don’t Belong,” and A Hero’s Death as a whole, is a refusal to play into preconceived notions about the band. Fontaines D.C. don’t belong to anyone. They’re going to make the music they want to make, not the music you want them to make. “I was not born/ Into this world/ To do another man’s bidding,” Chatten cries on “I Was Not Born.” “You won’t catch me/ No you won’t catch me/ Not in your bear-trap loyalty.” Even the title of the album itself, A Hero’s Death, is a way of puncturing the band’s own sense of mythology. They’re working overtime to prove that they’re not the same band, or the same people, that they were a year ago. Kill your idols, Fontaines D.C. seem to say — even if they are the idols.
If this isn’t the old Fontaines D.C., then what Fontaines D.C. is this? Despite the much-publicized Beach Boys influence, no one will think A Hero’s Death is AM gold sunshine pop. It is subtler and softer and prettier than Dogrel, with Chatten even breaking out some honest-to-god melodic singing on tracks like “You Said” and the waltz-like “Oh Such A Spring.” But it’s darker, too, more atmospheric and downcast. UK post-punk maven and Speedy Wunderground label boss Dan Carey also produced their last record, but he brings in more shades of gray on this one, effectively building and sustaining a cohesive mood while allowing for greater complexity and nuance.
That’s not to say it’s all ballads. “Televised Mind,” which originally dates back to the era before Dogrel’s release, is full of churning guitars and roiling drums. The breakneck “A Lucid Dream” offers only a brief respite before hurtling toward its climactic conclusion. “Living In America” is thrillingly noisy and chaotic and disjointed, constantly seeming on the verge of collapse but never quite getting there. The songs are no less immediate, but where the heaviness on Dogrel sounded triumphant and anthemic and full of life, the heaviness on A Hero’s Death just sounds, well, heavy, anxious and freaked out and paranoid.
That brooding cloud extends to the album’s lyrics. Where Dogrel felt like a series of vignettes and character studies of the dreamers and drunks you might stumble into on Dublin’s street corners, A Hero’s Death is more fragmented and impressionistic and personal. Dogrel was anchored in Dublin, but A Hero’s Death feels dislocated and unmoored. To be clear, that’s not a criticism. The lack of specificity is a feature, not a bug, reflecting the isolation of life on the road as a touring musician, cities and countries morphing into an indistinguishable blur. “Where I was I can’t tell,” Chatten coos over and over again as the dreamy “Sunny” draws to a close, the one point on the album where you really can hear Brian Wilson’s influence.
Fontaines D.C.’s songwriting has always relied on the power of repetition, producing mantras that sear themselves into your brain. That’s true more than ever on A Hero’s Death. Most of the songs climax with one repeated phrase: “I don’t belong to anyone,” “That’s a televised mind,” “Oh such a spring.” Because the songs’ newfound focus on atmosphere and mood allows Chatten’s voice more room to breathe and modulate itself, the meaning warps and shifts with each recurrence, so that you can never quite tell if he believes what he’s saying. When he flatly drawls “love is the main thing,” is it just sarcasm? What about when he insists “life ain’t always empty”? Does he really mean it, or is he trying to convince himself?
In an album so grayscale, black and white distinctions seem beside the point. “Give us all you got/ You’re in love and then you’re not/ You can lock yourself away/ Just appreciate the gray,” Chatten sings in the opening lines of closing track “No.” It’s one of the most delicate and straightforwardly beautiful moments on the whole record, his voice accompanied by little more than spacious strums. “Even when you don’t know/ Even when you don’t/ You feel,” he continues. It’s not about knowing, it’s about feeling. The uncertainty is part of the package. Appreciate the gray and you’ll find a whole lot to appreciate on A Hero’s Death.
At the album’s conclusion, “No” is in direct conversation with opener “I Don’t Belong” and its affirmation of independence. “And we know what freedom brings/ The awful songs it makes you sing,” Chatten says. “And please don’t lock yourself away/ Just appreciate the gray,” he revises, adding, “There’s no living to a life/ Where all your fears are running rife.” The “No” in the title might as well be directed at the band themselves. No, you can’t define yourself in opposition to the rest of the world. The Fontaines D.C. of “No” seem older and wiser than the band that declared “I don’t wanna belong to anyone” at the beginning of this album, let alone the band that declared “I’m gonna be big!” at the beginning of the last one. If Dogrel showed that they can be big, then A Hero’s Death shows that they can be whatever the hell they want. Fontaines D.C. are dead; long live Fontaines D.C. Who knows who they might become next?
A Hero’s Death is out 7/31 via Partisan Records. Pre-order it here.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Beyoncé’s Black Is King visual album.
• Psychedelic Furs’ first album in decades, MADE OF RAIN.
• Land Of Talk’s unsurprisingly lovely indie rocker Indistinct Conversations.
• Madeline Kenney’s Wye Oak-assisted Sucker’s Lunch.
• Mirah’s You Think It’s Like This But Really It’s Like This tribute album.
• Purling Hiss frontman Mike Polizze’s folky solo debut Long Lost Solace Find.
• Gillian Welch’s unreleased recordings collection Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs, Vol. 1.
• Yes guitarist Steve Howe’s solo LP Love Is.
• Brandy’s first album in eight years, B7.
• Former Yuck frontman Daniel Blumberg’s On&On.
• Pop songwriter Victoria Monét’s solo debut Jaguar.
• Dominic Fike’s debut album What Could Possibly Go Wrong.
• Makaya McCraven’s Universal Beings E&F Sides companion album.
• Alanis Morissette’s Such Pretty Forks In The Road.
• Wye Oak’s No Horizon EP.
• Jordana’s Something To Say EP.
• !!!’s Certified Heavy Kats EP.
• Wicca Phase Springs Eternal & Darcy Baylis’ This Moment I Miss EP.
• Backxwash’s STIGMATA EP.