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The centre cannot hold: Fontaines D.C.’s post-punk wasteland

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Following the COVID tainted release of their sophomore album, A Hero’s Death, Fontaines D.C. have just finished their UK tour in an explosive fashion. The post-punk band’s debut album, Dogrel, lamented the gentrification of Dublin and the ennui of modern life. Their front man, Grian Chatten, acts as flâneur/preacher as he leads his audience from pub to pub, street to street through the everyday of Dublin. The album is a homage to the working class, a lament to those left behind in the throes of modernity: Dogrel is a reference to doggerel, a form of Irish working-class poetry. Their sophomore album, A Hero’s Death, is a similar playful riot against conformity and modernity yet the ennui once found on the streets of Dublin have now been transposed onto a broader, more abstract contemplation of modern life. 

Chatten was born in England to an English father who would exchange football cards with him in return for learning poems. As a result, it is little surprise that the band initially bonded over their shared love of Joyce’s work. Chatten stands as the latest in a long legacy: the expatriated Irish artist torn between national pride and artistic pull (think Yeats, Joyce, etc.). The chanting in the opening track I Don’t Belong evokes a quixotic last stand of a band resisting. This is perhaps best seen through their use of Cú Chulainn on the cover of A Hero’s Death, a Celtic hero who defended Ulster single-handedly (“I was not born into this world to do another man’s bidding”). 

Fontaines D.C., however, are much more than an angst-ridden rebellion. Their approach to lyrics is refreshing, poeticism taking primacy over earworms and synthetic rhyme in a way rarely seen since the Smiths and, even with its more avant-garde features, post-punk is still a reactionary movement that values authenticity. The second verse of I Don’t Belong pictures a disillusioned soldier throwing his medals into a river: Gratten describes this as a reaction to the “hijacking and commodification of his principles”. This could be the contemplation of someone torn between two nationalities but perhaps is more a confrontation with the commercial reality of the music industry in which there seems to often a mutually exclusive choice: commercial success or authenticity. This is a theme the Fontaines explored in their debut album, “A sell-out is someone who becomes a hypocrite in the name of money” (Chequeless Reckless) as well as the flippant ambition in the anthem Big. 

Chatten describes the titular track, A Hero’s Death, as “a list of rules for the self, they’re principles for self – prescribed happiness that can often hang by a thread”. This is a song that treads the line between sincere and sarcastic. There is an ambiguity to the repeating, “Life ain’t always empty” that leaves the listener questioning whether this is a statement of fact or an attempt by Gratten to convince himself of its truth. The verses are peppered with warped idiomatic phrases such as, “Sit beneath a light that suits ya/ And look forward to a brighter future” and, “Bring your own two cents/ Never borrow them from someone else” the verse reads like lines lifted from self-help books and advertising billboards, infused with tongue-in-cheek Irish colloquialisms. 

Televised Mind is a confrontation with mass media and the effects it can have on someone’s mind. “They’re all gulls in the sky/ They all mimic love’s cry” simultaneously vilifies major production companies for their inauthenticity and the homogenous minds that consume their products. The Eliot-esque dichotomy of the sordid and commercial society “Swipe your thoughts from Broadway/Turn ideals to cabaret” blurs the gap between the two through their proximity. This is a contrast often found in Fontaines lyrics, high-minded literary influence sits alongside Irish colloquialisms. Living In America is a chaotic exploration of this idea: 

London’s fine, did my time, threshed the truth out the lie Snowman coaled, pigeon-holed, cooed to death, pilgrim soul Curtain closed, system froze, wait for me, braver be Dragged old man kissed and ran, licked away osprey tan 

This is a manifestation of the psychology of the urban landscape: disjunctive, associative and erratic. As with many of his poetic predecessors, there is a certain romanticism associated with the sordid monotony of the cityscape. The song originated from a jam session in which band members were encouraged to play whatever they wanted (in different keys and tempos) as Gratten ad-libbed lyrics over the top, eventually developing into a track that possesses all the lyrical and musical volatile beauty of a Pixies record. 

If it was Kavanagh whose poetry was most present in their debut album it is Yeats’ ‘terrible beauty’ that shines through in A Hero’s Death. The album is a chaotic, and at times melancholy, confrontation with modern life and how to live it. Fontaines D.C. possesses a rare and unmatched combination of poeticism and musical versatility that places them as a refreshing voice in the future of guitar music.

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