A Hero’s Death (Partisan/Liberator)
It’s a good trick, though no trick at all – this is a band as likely to try for cunning/clever deception as they are to bust out some one-liners – to make an album which is more paranoid, more dark-of-brow, more intense than its predecessor, and be even more compelling. Welcoming even.
If 2019’s Dogrel painted a picture of low-sky cities, close-quarters engagements and questions posed with a pointed frankness, the second album from Dublin’s Fontaines D.C. pulls that sky down lower and asks just what those personal engagements are all about, and what do we sacrifice to have them?
This is a record of response: in small part to the music they made on Dogrel, but in larger part to the world that smacked them upside their head, punched them square amidships and administered a chop to the back of the knees as their debut became one of the most discussed albums of a pre-covid world.
If you think, imagine how they’d be feeling if that debut hadn’t been universally praised and their year hadn’t been spent in sold out shows around the world, you’re missing the point. If your expectations have always been constrained by scepticism as much as circumstance, open horizons look suspiciously like the edge of yawning chasms.
The real question we should ask is when all that comes at you, how do you not lose yourself? And in the album’s opening track, the self-explanatory I Don’t Belong (as in “I don’t belong to anyone/I don’t want to belong to anyone”) there’s an undertone of willing this to happen under the grim certainty of narrow sonic range and monotonic delivery.
It’s a striking opening for its refusal to be a striking opening: it says you’re here under our rules. And the rules are hard.
The relentlessness of drummer Tom Coll and bassist Conor Deegan in tracks like the foreboding Living In America, the prickling Televised Mind and the grafittied bus seats edginess of I Was Not Born, feels like the scudding clouds of tension coalescing, changing the tenor of everything around them like light disappearing and moving shadows into more imposing darkness.
That set up is reversed in the propulsive A Lucid Dream where drum and bass aim for running hard down the street, sensing freedom just around the corner, but guitarists Carlos O’Connell and Conor Curley play with alternating sharpness and fuzzy bleakness in a double act that doesn’t relent.
Even in the drawled mid-tempo of the title track, with its bab-bap-bah backing vocals and list of reasons to at least not despair completely (“Life ain’t always empty,” says Grian Chatten. “Don’t get stuck in the past”), the lyrical repetitions play like a prescribed mantra as the guitars fold over and over like a tumbling kid in a barrel set loose with hope, not certainty.
And in Love Is The Main Thing, the quasi-march rhythm intersects with a strong dose of doomed Joy Division, vocally, and Echo and the Bunnymen, in the guitars, so that you believe Chatten wants to believe, but you doubt he’s going to go all-in any time soon.
So, you may be wondering, the paranoia and tension is clear, but how is this welcoming? Because it grabs you by the throat early and doesn’t let go, making you feel like this the kind of existential crisis you can grasp: human size and real, openly addressed and more balanced than you might expect.
If it leans to the sombre in tempo, it always feel like it is throbbing with life. The sky is low but it hasn’t closed in yet.