Usually, when a band follows up their lauded, hype-building debut album in lightning-fast time, they do so to capitalise on the buzz and double down on any early promise. Fontaines D.C.‘s second album, the tense, often morose ‘A Hero’s Death’, feels like the antithesis of this approach.
Arriving just a little more than 12 months after ‘Dogrel’, their five-star instant classic of a debut album, ‘A Hero’s Death’ doesn’t depict the Dubliners attempting to emulate that debut album. Instead, it finds the band investigating their meteoric rise and the punishing, never-ending tour that followed, sifting through the fragmented pieces that remain.
‘Dogrel’ opened with ‘Big’, a gargantuan, suitably titled statement of intent, a fast, frenetic punk song on which vocalist Grian Chatten proclaimed: “Dublin in the rain is mine,” before the Gallagher-sized kiss-off: “I’m gonna be big.” In contrast, ‘I Don’t Belong’, the first song from ‘A Hero’s Death’, is a sullen, downbeat rebuttal. “I don’t belong to anyone,” Chatten repeats over and over, more defeated than defiant.
Though Chatten sounded ready for anything the world could throw at him on ‘Big’, even he probably couldn’t have anticipated just how large things would get for him and his bandmates. This album plays out like the record the five-piece had to write in order to make sense of their rapidly changing worlds.
“We weren’t really eating and we were burning the candle at both ends,” Chatten recently told NME of the ‘Dogrel’ tour, recalling week after week of self-medicating with whiskey just to plough through the next gig and get a decent kip afterwards. “It became a bit surreal as towns melted into each other and faces started to look a bit strange,” he explained. “It was a surreal environment we created for ourselves.”
This surrealism is at the heart of ‘A Hero’s Death’, the inner turmoil that festered in the wake of the band’s outward success spat out with venom. Take the fantastic ‘A Lucid Dream’: “Ah, you’re all prone to being anyone else other than you,” Chatten sings, directing his side-eyeing glance at himself and his bandmates as much as anyone else.
“We started to feel very detached from who we were when we wrote ‘Dogrel’, guitarist Carlos O’Connell told NME, and this disassociation is plain to see. “They just wanna come to your place and see you sing,” Chatten roars of the puppetry of live performance on ‘A Lucid Dream’, before the dark, creeping song avalanches into chaos. When Fontaines D.C. may have once shaped the track into a boozy anthem like ‘Boys In The Better Land’ or ‘Liberty Belle’, here they take it down even darker paths, further towards oblivion. Their simple desire to placate their audiences is long gone.
Though the gloom somewhat lifts away on the big, bright ‘I Was Not Born’, which recalls the soaring melodies of Frightened Rabbit, ‘A Hero’s Death’ is largely cloaked darkness. The slow and sombre ‘You Said’ is a mid-album highlight. “You said you been on the brink, so slow down,” Chatten sings softly, remembering how he used to push the feeling down and power on: “Don’t get time to think now / You try operating faster.”
If ‘You Said’ finds Chatten meditating on past mistakes, the album’s title track – and first single – explores the band’s new epiphanies as they reconnect with old values and piece together their former selves. A catchy, straight-up pop-rock song – this is the clearest you hear the Beach Boys adulation that the band have cited when discussing the new album –the song contains Chatten’s new manifesto: “Don’t get stuck in the past / Say your favourite things at mass.” Among doo-wop backing vocals straight from the Brian Wilson songbook, he tells himself: “Tell your mother that you love her, and go out of your way for others.”
The self-interrogation hits its peak when Chatten notes that “happiness ain’t really all about luck” and bellows: “When you speak, speak sincere / And believe me, friend, everyone will hear.” In burning the candle at both ends, he warns, “we’re all in the running for a hero’s death”.
In aiming to examine the self rather than please others, Fontaines D.C. have exerted a knack for writing anthems that are at once self-excoriating and intimately relatable. As the title track finishes with a clatter, Chatten drives one final wedge between his old and new selves. “That was the year of the sneer,” he spits. “Now the real thing’s here.”
Release date: July 31
Release label: Partisan