Dean: Fontaines D.C. Update the Formula

Have Fontaines D.C. hit the ceiling of their success? The band’s early singles generated a tsunami of that most valuable of currencies for a new band: hype. Accordingly, they bypassed Dublin scenester appreciation and cult status for just-off-mainstream rock‘n’roll celebrity.

There were two acclaimed albums, arena tours, late-night American talk show performances. But through it all, I sometimes wondered if this was as far as five guys that make rickety post-punk songs could go. Maybe Fontaines D.C., like The Strokes and a hundred other bands before them, had hit the outer limits of their appeal early in their lifespan.

We tend to think of dramatic, Bowie-esque reinvention as the barometer of artistic genius and a prerequisite for longevity – you change or you wither and die. This is not entirely accurate and, in fact, the mythos of reinvention can skew very good bands into realms they are not comfortable with. I swear, on some albums you can feel the presence of producers and label executives in their ears: “Okay guys, it’s your third record. Time to add the synths.” On their third full-length, Skinty Fia, Fontaines D.C. wisely avoid the temptation to metamorphosise. Instead they tweak the formula, before it starts to crack and decay.

​​The weaponry remains guitars, drums, and bass, but the arrangements are more grandiose than before. The jittery punk energy has been stripped out, replaced by more epic soundscapes. Crucially, for all the upgrades, Skinty Fia sounds like a Fontaines D.C. record. The ambition to grow – and the inevitable altering of their worldview that comes with success – has not yet disconnected the band from their origins.

The title track offers the most jarring customisation of the FDC sound. A sloppy tongue-kissing session between dance music and rock reminiscent of songs by The Rapture, Primal Scream and Kasabian. Conor Deegan III’s bass is brawny and relentless; Tom Coll’s drums feel thumped to within an inch of their existence. The grinding sound of distortion and razor-wire guitar lines add to the sense of danger, like you’re walking through a busy factory floor with no clothes on.

​​Better still is the doomed ballad “Big Shot”. The chugging guitar chords fill the horizon as singer Grian Chatten drops his voice to its deepest caverns. Fontaines D.C. are unmistakable for any other band on the planet primarily because Chatten is such a singular vocalist. But while his style once felt more instinctual than technical, on “Big Shot” he offers theatrical crooning suitable for the arrangements.

To be critical, Chatten’s metaphors haven’t always hit the mark and his imagery can sometimes wilt. But he is a literate lyricist, with a pen infused with a romanticism for Dublin and fears surrounding its future that naturally draw in people disgusted by gentrification and wounded by the housing crisis.

There is “I Love You”, one of the band’s greatest achievements. The simple title obscures the density of the themes. “The first overtly political song we’ve written”, Chattan has said, and he’s happy to name what he sees Ireland’s problem as: “the gall of Fine Gael and the fail of Fianna Fáil”. His criticism is not just vapid: “And they say they love the land, but they don’t feel it go to waste/Hold a mirror to the youth and they will only see their face”, Chatten screams. That is to say, the kids are on their own, no governmental help incoming.

The longing for Ireland ties the album together: four-fifths of the band, including Chatten, now live in the UK. “And I loved you like a penny loves the pocket of a priest/And I’ll love you ‘til the grass around my gravestone is deceased”, he sings to his homeland on “I Love You”. It feels like almost an apology for leaving.

Then there’s “In ár gCroíthe go deo”. Chatten’s unusual sense of melody is wonderfully countered by Deegan III and guitarist Conor Curley’s floating Beach Boys-esque harmonies. As explained to Rolling Stone, the song is inspired by Margaret Keane, an Irish woman living in Coventry whose family was at first forbidden to include the expression (which translates to “in our hearts forever”) on her gravestone in case it was perceived as a political slogan. Chatten has spoken candidly of upsetting incidents he’s experienced as an Irishman in England and so it’s easy to understand why he saw Keane’s story as a microcosm of what is perhaps a new understanding of living in the fallout of Anglo-Irish history.

For a happier depiction of the life of the expat there is “Roman Holiday”. A song about wanting to “embrace London as an Irish person”, Chatten encourages a girl, “come on before the going gets gone … get your high heels on”. In terms of positivity, it’s probably as close as Fontaines D.C. will get to an anthem like Supergrass’s “Alright”. The band might never cultivate a sound that brings them a higher level of fame, but three albums in and they have not yet become boring in their consistency. Skinty Fia proves their peak is either not over, or not here yet.

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Dean Van Nguyen: Dean Van Nguyen is a cultural critic and music journalist for The Irish Times, The Guardian, Pitchfork, Bandcamp Daily and Wax Poetics, among others. As well as pop culture, he writes about identity, youth, race relations and Dublin.

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