The all-important second album. The creation of which, from conception to recording, can fill an artist with anxiety and gut-wrenching dread. It will either gratefully build upon the strong foundations laid very precisely by a critically acclaimed and warmly received debut release, or plod along that same well-trodden course rather too lamely, to be played once with excitement and then forgotten with nothing more than a disappointed shrug. It may sometimes veer off wildly, towards an entirely different direction, totally at the writer’s whim, gleefully dismantling all of their hard work along the way whilst wielding a sledgehammer to reputations and previous acclaim. The second album then: on which a band can either continue its colourful and absorbing ascent towards the stars, splutter and fade away in the low level clouds overhead, out of sight and out of mind, or explode on the launch pad, never to recover, confined to those CDs that now collect dust in obscurity, somewhere along the back of your shelf, probably next to The Kaiser Chiefs or Travis, or even XX, who all started out with the very best of intentions before becoming waylaid by the comfort and relative ease of boring repetition. Enter then the Fontaines D.C., to now stand before an audience still exhausted and intoxicated by Dogrel’s youthful and brash reminiscences from the streets of Dublin, and still shouting along exuberantly to Boys In The Better Land.
The genesis of what would become A Hero’s Death began on the road, over beers and whiskies and the trying out of ideas in the back of a van travelling through America in the middle of the night. Using the hours from gig to gig to re-centre creatively, and to find themselves again as friends.
“We experienced full journeys where we didn’t speak to each other,” lead singer Grian Chatten recalls. “It wasn’t because we didn’t love each other anymore. Our souls were kicking back,” he remembers now, “kicking back against the walls that were closing in.”
Fontaines D.C. should have been riding high. It should have been a triumphant year. Their debut album Dogrel had received widespread acclaim, had garnered a legion of fans the world over, Ireland’s secret was out. In another time this would have been nothing short of an incredible success story, a young band finally delivering on the hype rather than being swallowed up by it all. But to hear the band speak of it, the experience almost destroyed them. Touring constantly, Chatten, guitarists Carlos O’Connell and Conor Curley, bassist Conor Deegan III and drummer Tom Coll suddenly found themselves growing distant from one another, from themselves.
“We had no space for ourselves,” Grian tries to explain. “Our souls had nowhere to live, nowhere to lie.”
Soon, reluctantly, they had to cancel shows, seeking refuge in writing sessions back home in Dublin and trying to rediscover along the way what it was that had made them want to be a band, made them want to be together, in the first place. Rising from this, from out of this claustrophobia, they found a way to build on that that had come before, returning with an album that has evolved from Dogrel and seeking to move on from any idea that we think we may have of the Fontaines D.C.
“An evolution,” they claim, “necessary for survival.”
The title track and lead single is to be seen as a direct response to their debut, to the experiences that came from its critical acclaim, the lyrics first jotted down by Chatten during a playback of Dogrel.
“I was consumed by the need to write something else to alleviate the fear that I would never be able to do it again,” he says looking back on it now, with an explanation that could hold true for the whole album.
“When we wrote this album it was a reaction,” Carlos O’Connell adds. “A reaction to the success of Dogrel.”
“We started to feel very detached from who we were when we wrote Dogrel.”
“I don’t belong to anyone. I don’t want to belong to anyone,” the chorus of I Don’t Belong declares defiantly, Grian’s vocal tinged by an Irish-coloured snarl of angst, the song driven forwards on a raw and still wounded resolve to protect a freshly rediscovered freedom to be defended to the last, no matter the cost. “Not a retreat,” the guys claim now, “more a rebuke of Big,” Dogrel’s growling opener that was so very eager to boldly proclaim that this young band were ready to be the next big thing. That they were going to be big, despite it all.
Love is the Main Thing: the powerful monotonous drone through Chatten’s vocals leading this song, drilling the message home like some deranged mantra, over a frantic heartbeat from the drums and the schizophrenia of the strings, and you’re not really sure whether to trust in this repeated assuredness or not, if there’s something more, something lurking within this personally charged but sombre sound? A sound that then suddenly surges and crackles throughout Televised Mind, feeding the charged vocals buzzing with eager and excited electricity, and sparking the band to life, powering a flickering and pulsating song; a song that gets all-too-easily stuck inside your head, shorting out.
A Lucid Dream carries on with this fast and urgent mood, a band now with a clear powerful message that they’re so desperate to reveal and share. The vocals are revealing, beat poetry for this new and present time, of a lucid evening dream bordering on an early dawn’s nightmare, and then, an all-too-sudden about-turn, while still disorientated and gasping for breath, and with much still to take in, to absorb: You Said, a vulnerable, beseeching song restrained by it’s enticing and softer rhythm that is calming and beguiling, intriguing and inviting. Soft, reassuring strokes to soothe away those opening volts of frenetic shocking energy.
“A yearning, bleary rumination built on strained guitar lines Carlos and Conor wrote in a hotel room,” the guys reveal now, “after one particularly listless and depressing day in Brussels.”
Oh Such A Spring, again a beautiful, almost precautionary and wishful ballad. Of a simpler time full of innocence, carried home on a wistful and remorsefully laid down vocal and accompanied by light strings that carry in the wind and out across the open seas that Grian would wish to travel once more.
“Tell your mother that you love her,” they plead, the lessons learnt during those hard and desperate times course throughout a track now full of the wisdom gained and with a sense of hope uplifted, in spite of it all. A band in full flow, rocking the album towards its own entity, the trials and tribulations, Dogrel, left far behind in the rearview mirror.
Living In America. Another highlight, another stand-out moment. Grian’s singing fraught with warnings, of oncoming dangers they have lived, the band charged with the vibrancy found at the edge; conjuring up images of traffic congestion along freeways and interstates and of guns; of a land full of contradiction.
“I was not born…” Chatten declares defiantly, “to do another man’s bidding!” The wanting of something better and the searching for something else, for something or somewhere more meaningful. They are determined, they are now confident and their voice has been found. They are going to do things their way and strengthen on their early promise.
Grian’s voice, all through the track Sunny, is more melodic now, that confidence shining and with a comfort found in the knowledge that they know exactly where they’re going. The strings are subtle with their support, and the drums a reassuring and encouraging pulse, leading them on, pushing them on.
To end with, No. Probably the most positive of a Fontaines D.C. song? Despite everything, or maybe because of everything, they look back in retrospect and end the album on a resounding note of emotional reckoning, and across A Hero’s Death there is found hope, hope in what they have experienced: there is a new strength. Uplifting strings bring power and give meaning and solidity to Chatten’s words.
“Please don’t lock yourself away. Appreciate the grey,” they tell us, giving us the benefit of everything that has passed somewhere along that fraught road.
A Hero’s Death is intentionally moodier and searching, grappling with isolation and disorientation, more introspective and inward looking, something altogether more impressionistic than Dogrel, “trying to make sense of our experiences”, as their sense of reality threatened to fade further out of frame. It is more personal, full of, as Grian puts it, “imaginary universes to escape to in order to get away from the constant struggles of touring heavily.” The new album is layered with these personalities and with their attitudes, conflicting and contradictory. It is etched in punk rock’s old school excitement and frustration but now they are coloured and tempered with the new wave poetry found on our modern streets. The Fontaines D.C. know that they are killing a certain perceived version of themselves, but that’s their whole point. They are trying to push themselves, “sacrificing one identity to reveal another”, to take on one that is, now, fully their own.
Make a space in your collection for A Hero’s Death and always have it close at hand.