On first listen, the first single and title track “A Hero’s Death” from Fontaines D.C.’s second album, was an odd beast—splicing the opening riff of The Strokes’ “Last Nite” with subdued Beach Boys harmonies and a chorus that just seemed too eager to be a sing-along. But I loved the Dublin five-piece’s debut Dogrel and their no-nonsense, no-excess-chatter live show, so I gave it the benefit of a second listen…and then a third.
Every time I listened I noticed something different; the repetition rather then deadening became loaded with meaning. Like Andy Kaufman’s infamous “99 Green Bottles of Beer” routine—where he performed the whole song leading the audience from bewilderment to despair to hysterics—the chorus changes meaning on every listen. At times, I think lead singer Grian Chatten says it with a sneer, sometimes with an arched eyebrow, then a solemn brow—all ridiculous of course, as I’m only experiencing this through my earbuds.
Also, all the choruses seemed to be one “life ain’t always empty” short. It’s like a cheeky wink to the audience to say “gotcha!”
But the song isn’t a smart-ass routine: the verses are both memeable—“never let a clock tell you what you got time for, it only goes around, goes around, goes around”—and profound—“and if you find yourself in the family way, give the kid more than what you got in your day”. That last lyric hits hard, as it does the nigh on impossible, makes bringing up a kid sound like the most punk rock thing ever. It’s also a reminder that although Fontaines D.C. are clearly influenced by classic punk and indie, they left some of its grotty misogyny in the past.
With the exception of the snotty “I Was Not Born”, A Hero’s Death abandons the lean punk of their debut for brooding grunge and shimmering reverb. Written and recorded within 12 months of their debut, during a period of extensive touring of Europe and America, of feeling disconnected and strained friendships, the result is a muggy and pensive but ultimately uplifting album.
This ennui is most apparent in the folk ballad “Oh Such a Spring”, where they channel their inner James Joyce, imagining sailors drinking American wine in Dublin Harbour watching the world go by. Chatten wishing for the drunk idleness of pre-fame Spring, but aware of his hypocrisy, criticising workers going to work “just to die” while feeling empty living inside his own dream.
The album is full of double meanings and contradictory perspectives, as befits a band who released two collections of poetry before releasing their debut single. In isolation, the mantra of “I Was Not Born” to “do another man’s bidding” sounds like a standard punk affirmation, but following three tracks after “Oh Such a Spring” seems deliberately self-parodic, Chatten slurring his words, “won’t catch me slee-slee-sleeping” like his head is about to drop from exhaustion. Similarly the defiant war hero throwing himself on a bullet in “I Don’t Belong” finds himself in “Sunny” apologising to his son for his failure to be a good father and the breakdown of his marriage, lamenting his lack of commitment to his son’s mother “as a ring was surely called for”.
A Hero’s Death is the sound of a band teasing out the best in each other. There are no virtuoso bits or three-minute drum solos. The songs are tight and complex multi-stranded affairs where everything is beautifully convoluted.
You don’t need to be told the father in “Sunny” is an alcoholic; the narcoleptic reverb haze in the background does that. The impotent rage of the screen addict of “Televised Mind” is in the squalling feedback that erupts but then falls in line with the driving rhythms. “A Lucid Dream” downs the tempo from psyche rock into a playful jazz tinged middle section as seamless as a dream can turn to a nightmare. While the crackly guitar, echoing vocals, steel-booted glam and background hiss of “Living in America” is the background noise to the American nightmare the band saw on tour.
That righteous anger makes them numb on “Love is the Main Thing”; where the lyrics become as untethered as the quivering beats and easy listening psychedelica underneath it, mocking meaningless generalisations of love through nonsense words.
“You Said” borrows heavily from Interpol’s bag of tricks—Daniel Kessler’s skyscraping guitar licks, the human-as-machine metaphors, the cold detached vocal—but they never dared to be this emotively direct. It sticks out on the album because it’s the one track where Fontaines D.C. don’t transcend their influences.
The finale “No” is their finest song to date, if not one of the best songs of the year; imagine Oasis’s “Champagne Supernova” reinterpreted by Mogwai. The song sounds at war with itself: the folk-tinged acoustic melody and distorted power chords joust for control, while Chatten’s voice moves from sweet to tone-deaf. The responsibility weighing down on the band becomes a universal truth about not being controlled by fear: “And we know what freedom brings, the awful songs it makes you sing”. All the wound-up anxiety of the album slowly unravels, and a state of glorious acceptance of both the good and the bad takes over.
The final words of the title track sum up the album best: “That was the year of the sneer now the real thing’s here”. A Hero’s Death marks Fontaines D.C. out as no longer a band to watch, but a band to follow. With band members writing during lockdown, it’s possible a third album could be out next year. As the band say: “life ain’t always empty”.