“Heavy is the head that wears the crown”, goes the old adage, and, in the terms of the Irish elk that adorns the cover of Fontaines D.C.’s third album ‘Skinty Fia’, that appears to be true. The animal was one of the strongest deer that ever lived and a leader for its species, yet went extinct 4,000 years ago when their antlers became so large that they could no longer hold themselves up. The decision to make this proud, exhibitionist creature the artwork of this record, however, is an apt one: like its songs, it looks strong, gleaming and immaculate from a distance, but overwhelmed and troubled if you get too close.
‘Skinty Fia’ translates from Irish as “the damnation of the deer”, and the Dublin quintet have described the Irish elk as representative of their ever-evolving relationship to their country’s culture. With the exception of guitarist Conor Curley, the band relocated to London two years ago. “It’s difficult to stay in touch with Irish culture while you’re not there,” drummer Tom Coll told NME in this week’s cover story. “You grapple with guilt.” ‘Skinty Fia’ unpacks the emotional intensity of that major life change, resulting in their most experimental music yet.
Since 2019’s charged and spiky debut ‘Dogrel’, Fontaines D.C. have made snarling guitar music wedged firmly in the post-punk framework, with busy, ricocheting arrangements and recurring sounds that cut deep and sharp like a knife. Yet frontman Grian Chatten’s songwriting – which has previously traversed weighty topics from Ireland’s income inequality to youthful disillusionment – has always been dense with greater possibilities than his contemporaries, whiplashing between the future and past of his country. And during a pandemic that tragically decimated large swathes of the music industry, Fontaines D.C.’s status only rose; 2020 follow-up ‘A Hero’s Death’ hit Number Two in the UK, and led the group to a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Album.
Recorded live to tape over a two week period, the recording process matched that of its predecessors, but the sonic shifts on ‘Skinty Fia’ are subtly experimental; the album is the sound of a band stretching into new shapes. The title track sees them fall through a trapdoor into a murky trip hop party, its percussive sections prickling like goosebumps as they fold in and over each other. It chips off some of the grittier edges of the band’s sound without losing their methodical and dark approach to a melody.
On past releases, Chatten has delivered his lyrics breathlessly, as if the thoughts were coming urgent and fast. Haunting lead single ‘Jackie Down The Line’, with its bassy shudders and spikes, sees him exert full control as he delivers a big pop hook on the chorus, before sending his voice out into echoes on the bridge. There are other intriguing left-turns, too: ‘The Couple Across The Way’ paints a heart-wrenching image of a deeply fractured relationship atop an accordion section, while the melody of ‘How Cold Love Is’ is deliberately circular and repetitive, its guitar riffs twisting around and stopping short for to make way for intermittent moments of reverent silence.
Anxiety has long lived in Fontaines D.C.’s music, but it grows into a sizable mass on ‘Skinty Fia’. The band turn their focus outwards, excavating issues that have affected the Irish diaspora at large. Propulsive opener ‘In ár gCroíthe go deo’ was inspired by a story in The Irish Post about the late Margaret Keane, whose family planned to have the titular epitaph engraved on her headstone. Yet they were challenged by the Church of England on the basis that the Gaelic phrase could be deemed “political” without an English translation – and this song communicates the hurt that the band felt at that decision by assembling swarming group vocals into a fragile yet stunning climax.
Later, on the powerful and searing ‘I Love You’, Chatten puts himself on trial, dissecting his own worries before addressing Ireland’s young people. The five-minute centrepiece opens with a Stone Roses-style bass rumble that quickens and intensifies as he begins to pinpoint the failings of the unelected coalition of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael that has formed the current Irish government since 2020, as well as nodding to Ireland’s growing housing issues and high rates of youth suicide. “Flowers read like broadsheets / Every young man wants to die”, he repeats over thundering drums.
By honouring his generation’s rage, the track allows Chatten to shout back at his politically dysfunctional home, but also contemplate the pain of moving away from it; no matter how tormented this album gets, you can feel ‘Skinty Fia’’s wounded heart beating throughout. The fight for a better Ireland deserves songs that mirror the depth of the crisis, and in its endlessly captivating glory, ‘Skinty Fia’ rises triumphantly to the task.
- Release date: April 22
- Record label: Partisan Records