The Irish quintet’s sophomore record is a jarring yet startling departure from their debut that cements their status as one of the most needed voices in the twenty-first century.
Talk to any band that has experienced a stratospheric rise to success, and they’ll tell you that life never quite returns to normal. They’ll often talk about their career in terms of this overnight success – normality, and then things never quite being normal ever again. Fontaines D.C. experienced such a catapult to stardom in 2019. Their debut album garnered pretty much every critical nod possible in the UK – a Mercury Prize nomination, Rough Trade’s Album Of The Year, a packed out Glastonbury set – it’s hard to imagine a better twelve months. But, behind closed doors, all was not well. The band were struggling to adjust to their new reality. Gigs were cancelled and tensions were stretched to breaking point, culminating in an entire album’s worth of sessions recorded in LA being scrapped. So, what did Fontaines D.C. do? They went home.
Fontaines D.C.’s first album, Dogrel, was recorded in London with post-punk kingmaker Dan Carey. One of the most celebrated facets of the record was its production, managing to make guitar music more vital and interesting than it had been for a decade. So, when the tension and strife of being a band in the zeitgeist threatened to engulf Fontaines D.C., the only path they saw forward was to reunite with Carey. The end result, though, is not the vital rush of energy their debut was. If Dogrel was Renton running down the street in the opening scene of Trainspotting, then A Hero’s Death is him returning to Edinburgh a changed man in T2. Grian Chatten, frontman, sums their ordeal up thus: “Our souls had nowhere to live, nowhere to lie.” The recording sessions produced darker, more inward compositions; the singles A Hero’s Death and Televised Mind are the only nods to the band’s previous vigour.
A Hero’s Death begins with I Don’t Belong, which is as close to the antithesis of previous opener Big as you can get. It’s constructed around a doomy guitar sound, which lurches back and forth, only just managing to propel the track along. It belies an album unwilling to hold the listener’s hand, and one all the better for it. Grian’s knack for a vague phrase that will burrow its way deep into your brain is still intact, and he explores this further on Love Is The Main Thing. He’s fascinated by what happens when mantras are repeated over and over, losing and then regaining meaning.
‘A Hero’s Death is certainly not Dogrel Pt. 2. But then again, neither is it an iconoclastic departure. Instead, it’s perhaps better than either of those options – it’s an introspective, mature evolution of Fontaines D.C.’s sound.’
Sonically, the album retreats from the clarity of its predecessor. The mix is sludgey and dense, and when the fog clears for even a minute, it can still be nigh on impossible to latch onto a hook. Take the mid-album couplet of You Said and Oh Such A Spring; the guitars soar and weep one moment and then the next, they’re spidery and minimal. Living In America has perhaps the most unassailable guitars on the record, a strangled and quite frankly odd mix. Indeed, this is one moment that makes me question if there’s actually any substance beneath it all. But, when the production works, it really works. Take closer No, for instance. The chords delicately grind away, giving the impression of a construction held up by spiderwebs. Credit must also be given to Tom Coll’s work on drums – often, they’re what hold the album together. On Lucid Dream he treats the cymbals with the same muted tap that was all over Dogrel, but on I Was Not Born he’s in proper tub-thumping territory. It’s always thrilling to watch an act that’s more than the sum of its parts
The ace in the hole here, though, is Chatten’s lyrics. Throughout the record, his lyrics can be read as a commentary on mental health – he often seems to be confiding in the listener, or proffering advice. I Don’t Belong feels like a spiritual successor to Radiohead’s How To Disappear Completely, a hymn to dissociation and displacement. A Hero’s Death is also incredibly sombre in places, with Oh Such A Spring feeling mournful and regretful: “I watched all the folks go to work, just to die.” But, the record is most powerful when it strikes an optimistic note. Title track A Hero’s Death reads like a self-help book, with Grian stating over and over that “life ain’t always empty”. The mantras are delivered at breakneck speed – it’s as if he’s trying to get out all his thoughts while he still can. The most powerful lyrics are to be found on final track No, however. It’s a hymn for mental health, both consoling the listener and gentle steering us towards self-love. “Don’t play around with blame, it does nothing for the pain” Chatten tells us. The LP ends on a simple yet resounding note, incanted over and over: “you feel, you feel.”
‘If Dogrel was Renton running down the street in the opening scene of Trainspotting, then A Hero’s Death is him returning to Edinburgh a changed man in T2.’
A Hero’s Death is certainly not Dogrel Pt. 2. But then again, neither is it an iconoclastic departure. Instead, it’s perhaps better than either of those options – it’s an introspective, mature evolution of Fontaines D.C.’s sound. In places, the album gets lost in itself, and I found myself yearning for the more lean approach the band took on Dogrel, but ultimately A Hero’s Death is still an incredibly impressive statement. After all, you either die the hero …