By James Peppercorn, MA English Literature
For a band that is less than five years old, Ireland's finest Fontaines D.C. seemed to have conquered the world. They have released arguably two of the best albums of the past couple of years with Dogrel and A Heroes Death. They have sold out numerous world tours and played venues as large as Alexandra Palace (one of the most impressive concerts this writer has ever attended). They are one of the biggest bands to come out of Ireland this side of U2. It really seemed Fontaines could have taken a bit of a break from their constant victory lap. Yet here we are again, staring down the barrel of another world tour, another slew of singles and finally the release of their newest album, Skinty Fia.
The album is named after the Irish saying “the damnation of the dear”, a saying that dummer Tom Coll’s grandmother used to say. Alluding to the extinct Irish Elk, the feeling of displaced and lost Irishness is injected into every song on the record. Most of the band have relocated to London and the distance from their homeland has allowed the group, and especially singer Grian Chatten, to look back at their homeland with a Joycean eye. Home seems far away, and everyone feels lost and confused.
The singles from the record have all expressed a feeling of fracture. ‘Jackie Down the Line’ rips into a Cure like rhythm about an abusive relationship. ‘I Love You’ creates a monolithic steam train for Chatten to vocalise his disdain for the Irish government's destruction of the countries nationalism. The track holds some of Chatten’s most scathing and magnificent lines yet: “And I loved you like a penny loves the pocket of a priest/And I’ll love you till the grass around my gravestone is deceased”.
The fusion of styles and experimentation in song structures show how Fontaines have grown and evolved since the days of Dogrel, building emotion out of chaos rather than the youthful full-frontal energy trip of songs like ‘Liberty Bell’ and ‘Boys In the Better Land’. The band feel more world weary, no more “My childhood was small / but I’m gonna be big” - much more “A cloud parting smile I had / a real good child I was / but this island’s run by sharks with children’s bones stuck in their jaws”. The title track uses this disdain and chaos to create warped malice out of an electronic groove, Chatten manifesting his rage in a rolling string of words, “Are you lying through your teeth or are they paying through your nose?”. Now we have the full picture with the release of the entire album, we can stand in awe at the true potential that this band holds. A band that can never stop moving forward but must look back in order to deal with their present.
The album drools like a sagging dog hungry for flesh. A number of the songs move along at a dredge that allows moments like ‘Jackie Down the Line’ and the heavenly ‘Roman Holiday’ to bring light to the confusion. ‘Bloomsday’, a direct reference to James Joyce, describes walking around the streets of Dublin and reacquainting oneself with their Irishness which feels displaced. ‘Big Shot’ and ‘How Cold Love Is’ similarly move at a crawl that would make them fit right alongside anything on A Heroes Death, but they are wrapped in such cloudy guitar that they become a shoegaze-y duo of pillowy songs in the same vein as Slowdive or My Bloody Valentine. One of the most intriguing experiments, ‘The Couple Across the Way’, feels like a traditional Irish hymn that forefronts the beauty of Chatten’s lyrics and voice. Supposedly written after Chatten saw a couple arguing in the apartment across from him in London, it feels like a call to hold onto love when all seems futile.
The two revelations on the album are the bookending tracks which not only point the way forward for Fontaines as one of the most interesting bands on the planet, but also solidify their position as titans amongst the plethora of other post-punk bands. Opener ‘In ár gCroíthe go deo’ (‘In our hearts forever’) draws inspiration from a story about a lady being buried with the Irish inscription on her gravestone, only to have the Church disallow the inscription due to the possibility of it being seen as a political statement (mind you, this story is from 2018, showing us just how silenced Irishness is). The song begins with the build up of Conor Deegan’s bass with the band all providing choral backing vocals of the song's title. As the track progresses, it blossoms into an explosion of rage and frustration with drummer Tom Coll showcasing some immense skills. Chatten repeats, “Gone is the day, gone is the night, gone is the day”, and we the listener get sucked into the whirlwind of confusion and manic rage that is the through line of the whole album.
The closer, ‘Nabokov’, blows open everything Fontaines have ever done. Where the bass at the start of ‘In ár gCroíthe go deo’ builds slowly, ‘Nabokov’ whacks you across the face, Muhammad Ali KO of noise and anxiety. Guitarists CarlosO'Connell and Conor Curley thrust and burst against a demonic beat, floating with soft backing vocals as Chatten’s vocals glow red and burn in a daze. ‘I bled myself out, pain, pure sky / I will be your dog in the corner’. It is one of the most harrowing songs this band has released. The entire song feels otherworldly and you are left shaking, needing to cool off.
Fontaines D.C. have never been afraid to speak their mind or turn on the darkness. Skinty Fia however pushes all of what makes Fontaines so powerful to another plethora of anxiety induced rage. There are some of their poppiest, druggiest, and most experimental moments splattered across the record, yet in the end we are left with an album that refines the rage of a band that continue to leap frog over themselves. Having followed this band from the beginning, I remain astounded at their potential. This album will be dissected by many over the next year, yet on the first couple of listens it feels like a towering inferno above so much else. If this is any sign of what may come next, I am utterly terrified to see what they could possibly do. Fontaines D.C. have a voice and sound that is begging to be heard, screaming in fact. It would be hard to turn away now.
Featured image: Partisan Records
What do you think of Fontaines D.C.'s latest album?