Fontaines D.C. will release their second album A Hero’s Death on July 31st via Partisan Records.
The arresting artwork for A Hero’s Death, the restrained, anxious and atmospheric second album from Irish post-punk outfit Fontaines D.C., depicts a statue of the Irish mythological hero Cúchulainn. In this rendering, Cúchulainn has been mortally wounded due to being struck by a magic spear thrown by his enemy Lugaid. However, he has tied himself to a standing stone so that he can die on his feet, facing his enemies. This is ‘a hero’s death’. There is something terribly fatalistic and yet wonderfully defiant about this idea. Even in the face of complete destruction, there is hope and succour to be had.
This is broadly the mood musically and lyrically throughout A Hero’s Death. Whereas last year’s Dogrel, with tracks like the pacy and concise ‘Big’ and the arena-sized ‘Boy’s in the Better Land’, was mostly filled with outward-looking songs of immediacy, A Hero’s Death is a more atmospheric, inward gazing listen with songs that are not really, by and large, in much of a rush. There’s perhaps an aura of defeat and resignation here but, crucially, there remains underlying defiance that cannot quite be quenched.
Perhaps two decent points of reference musically from Dogrel are ‘Roy’s Tune’, the stunning working-class ballad that arrived midway through the album and ‘Dublin City Sky’, the beautiful album closer. At least five of the eleven songs on A Hero’s Death are kindred to those tracks in mood and pace. ‘I Don’t Belong’, ‘You Said’, ‘Oh Such A Spring’, ‘Sunny’ (that one has a string section!) and ‘No’ all mine a similarly delicate and minimal approach. A special mention here is necessary for ‘No’ which is simply stunning in its straightforward honest and earnest simplicity. It bears an undoubted likeness to Ireland’s underrated alt-rock heroes Whipping Boy.
Having said that, the album is not replete with ballads. Tracks like ‘Love Is The Main Thing’, ‘Televised Mind’, the title track, and ‘Living in America’ bring up the pace to at least a mid-tempo stomp. In particular, ‘Living In America’ is a driving and confrontational tune albeit in a darker and more oppressive vein than anything on Dogrel. It is a superb musical recreation of the claustrophobia of travelling the States on a tour bus. ‘I Was Not Born’, which has a Them worthy main riff, and ‘A Lucid Dream’ both see the band in more familiar big-hearted, jangling, lively Dogrel territory. Undoubtedly though, this year’s Fontaines D.C. is more cerebral than before.
Similarly, the change in musical approach is reflected in a change in vocalist Grian Chatten’s lyrics and delivery. While Dogrel was mostly observational Joycian depictions of Dublin and its characters, personal autonomy seems to be Chatten’s prime concern this time around. The album begins with Chatten repeating “I don’t belong to anyone” as if to convince himself as much as anyone else. This theme pops up again in ‘I Was Not Born’ where Chatten asserts, “I was not born / Into this world / To do another man’s bidding” while on ‘Oh Such A Spring’ he laments watching “folks go to work just to die”.
Another noticeable aspect of Chatten’s performance this time around is his use of repetition. On the first three tracks alone he repeats the phrases, “I don’t belong to anyone”, “Love is the main thing”, “That’s a televised mind”, and “What ya call it?”. This technique is also used on ‘A Hero’s Death’, ‘Living In America’, and ‘I Was Not Born’. Chatten has said this is inspired by advertisements, but on the album, the repetition significantly adds to the swirling claustrophobia of many of the songs.
So here’s the big question: is A Hero’s Death as good as the band’s debut album Dogrel? Unreservedly, the answer is yes. But even better than that, A Hero’s Death is different from Dogrel. Even though A Hero’s Death is hardly a departure on the scale of, let’s say, Kid A, it does show a band of brave ambition who aren’t afraid to challenge themselves and their audience and who are unwilling to rest on their laurels. The songs are still catchy too. That is more than we could ask for and more than we deserve.