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Fontaines D.C.
A Hero's Death Brian Coney , August 4th, 2020 08:18

If their much-hyped debut sometimes felt like cosplay, Fontaines DC's new record promises a new-found sincerity. Much to his surprise, Brian Coney finds he actually believes them this time

“Can’t you just be happy for them?”

If you’re Irish and weren’t totally smitten by the swift rise of Dublin’s Fontaines D.C. via their debut album Dogrel early last year, these seven words will no doubt ring familiar. A question that can’t be answered – a Gordian knot for the five-white-boys-in-a-band generation – it suggests that being happy for someone or something, despite one’s better judgement, is some kind of righteous feat in itself.

Arriving with all the believability of a monarch ascending to the throne in a Burger King crown, Fontaines D.C. were the real deal, you see. They read poetry. Actual poetry. With words and rhyming structures, written by real-life poets and everything.

Much of the music press “on the mainland” lapped it up like a complimentary case of Buckfast on the first night of Bang Face. They didn’t see five lads playing perfectly passable guitar music. It was “post-punk bangers” this, “guitar music’s great new hope” that. On ‘Too Real’ frontman Grian Chatten sneered, “Is it too real for ya?” For those whose listening habits extended beyond the ‘A’ playlist of BBC 6 Music, and those at home who knew that their claim that “there was such a lack of bands” was laughably apocryphal, the answer was often the same: not real enough. It all felt a little fumbled and cartoonish and over-meant.

In any case, whether hearing ‘Boys In The Better Land’ evoked in you “musical saviours” or “working-class cosplay,” it hardly matters anymore. The new lowdown is clear-cut: that band are dead, or something like it. Inspired by the line “everybody's looking for a hero's death” in The Hostage by Irish playwright Brendan Behan, A Hero’s Death is Fontaines’ fated honest-to-christ album. The big reveal. A necessary severance of the undue vainglory that came before. “This is us as people,” Chatten clues us in. “If people can’t accept it or don't like it, then their band is gone.”

Though falling short of revelatory, a few rotations of A Hero’s Death brings some good news. Outgrowing Joy Division and overblown inverted paddywhackery, it’s a largely nuanced and, most blessedly of all, believable affair. Having been open – commendably so – about the strains of touring life and how it led to the cancellation of several festival dates last summer, this is the unmistakable sound of a band attempting to eke out art from recovery. Oirish apotheosis shoo, the “D.C.” is no longer here nor there. Having spelled out and doubly underscored the setting with Dogrel, A Hero’s Death spins on its own axis. Chatten’s gaze peers inward, outrunning the security blanket of time and place. Sure, “Dublin in the rain” still shines, but its being so now feels like a well-weighted postscript, not some puffed-up header. And that’s why, on the whole, it works.

Slow-burning and sullen in the right places, opener ‘I Don’t Belong’ is a well-paced point of departure. “I heard him serving as a soldier, in the annexe of the earth,” Chatten incants. “Threw himself before a bullet and threw the metal to the dirt.” ‘Love Is The Main Thing’, meanwhile, makes for a deceptively serpentine peak early on. Melding Tom Coll’s locked-in rhythmic patterns with first-rate interplay from guitarists Conor Curley and Carlos O'Connell, it’s a should-be single that’s oddly heavy in its offhand intent. Almost ignoring the fact that ‘Oh Such A Spring’ and closer ‘No’ sound like homespun demos by Ronan Keating and Liam Gallagher respectively, highlights like ‘Televised Mind’, a single that unravels the more it stays the same, more than hit home.

Be that as it may, the band citing Broadcast, the Beach Boys and [checks notes] Suicide, carries with it all the congruity of 2020 Taylor Swift namedropping Jandek and late-era Wesley Willis. Grand on paper; a tad discrepant in reality. There’s some nice block harmonies on the title track and ‘Sunny’. Presumably that’ll be the Beach Boys influence. And granted, ‘Living in America’ is the sound of a band jamming one chord after listening to ‘Ghost Rider’ on the practice space PA. But in much the same way Chatten and co. bonded over a shared love of lit fuckboy paragon Jack Kerouac, it’s all a bit Anthony Fantano’s first Soulseek folder with scant pay-off. As they invariably will, the words of Mark E. Smith (“We’re living in a re-issue world, filching from the past like magpies with a Tardis”) spring to mind.

Jabs aside (and what God-given right as Irish people do we have if not a little gentle raillery?), Fontaines D.C. are undoubtedly on an upward swing. While Dogrel was, as tQ co-editor John Doran put it late last year in relation to Fontaines, Shame, Slaves et al. “just the latest iteration of something quite old,” A Hero’s Death forges enough distance from the recent past to reveal what could feasibly be a band on the cusp of earning their well-worn braggadocio. Much like before, to say otherwise will no doubt come with accusations of begrudging their success. Such is the way of the world. But in a world full of Hoziers and Kodalines, Fontaines D.C. are far from the worst. Truth be told, they never were. Can’t I just be happy for them? Now that I can believe it, I’m beginning to.