Music Reviews
A Hero's Death

Fontaines D.C. A Hero's Death

(Partisan Records) Rating - 7/10

Two albums in, Fontaines D.C. remain addled, and a little defeated, despite their increasing success. It may come as a surprise considering the Dublin quintet's pummeling 2019 debut, Dogrel, was filled with snarling, erudite observations that held no apologies. Their change in tune was partly due to their grueling schedule, which sucked the life out of a band that, though sometimes oblivious in their message, captured the excitement and thrill of being young. But carefree never applied to them: even at their most unruly and playful, like in Dogrel surf jammers like Liberty Belle and Chequeless Restless, their working-class poetry felt earned. Meaning, we'd expect nothing less than a direct reaction to their debut's reception—both musically and lyrically.

On A Hero's Death, frontman Grain Chatten looks a little more inward. Chatten doesn't fully let us in, though; he tucks in truthful witticisms that appear and disappear in a moments' glance, hiding within repeated refrains that can serve as a nagging insistence. "Silently hoping/Alwaysly raining," he longs on Love is the Main Thing, delivered with stoicism as the song title's words spiral on and on. Love is the main thing, but does he believe it? Whereas on Televised Mind, he feels lost in an echo chamber, perceiving the dangerous notion that a lack of free thought and individual thinking exists: "Now you don't care what they say/Nor do I." The desperation kicks in over an intense and hypnotic groove, reminiscent of The Horrors' second-album left turn when they hired Geoff Barrow to produce Primary Colours.

Chatten says more while revealing less, though sometimes his sentiments fall to carry their intended weight. A Lucid Dream is, well, you guessed it, about finding it hard to deal with success and drowning in a sea of opportunity. "Ah, you're all prone/To being anyone else/Other than you," he sings, caught in self-doubt over a quiet instrumental interlude. And though the repeated verses are compelling, they result in a cathartic moment that sounds embellished for sole dramatic effect. Other times, his optimism sounds almost disingenuous and riddled in self-reproach. "Life ain't always empty," Chatten repeats like a mantra on the title track, giving half-hearted reasons to motivate himself over a fierce guitar riff.

What Chatten's lack of vocal gravitas (his drawl is comparable to that of Ian Curtis), his band makes up in spades. And though the direction they take on the album is decidedly darker and more textural, it's also effective in its simplicity: Love is the Main Thing and Living in America, for instance, both fuse a tinge of The Cramps' gothic rockabilly with Iceage's grey-hued, brutalist post-punk. Most of this is greatly due to Fontaines D.C. secret weapon, guitarist Carlos O'Connell, whose patchwork of sounds on Dogrel revealed a songwriter who could take on any rock genre he sees fit. Most of A Hero's Death sounds homogenous by comparison, sans the tart ballads Oh Such a Thing and No, where O'Donnell spikes his chiming guitars with a metallic edge (the latter done with exceptional finesse).

In taking some chances, Fontaines D.C. channel a more complex musical dynamic: willing to experiment, but more streamlined, indebted to punk ferocity but close enough to pop song forms. And it mostly works, though the mixture of Chatten's weary attitudes coupled with the album's percussive and rhythmic uniformity sometimes implies a lack of thought. But A Hero's Death is not about growth: it's a band assessing where they stand as rising up-and-comers and having the impulse to express themselves differently. Maybe their sulking comes with a bit of affectation, but at least it's a convincing portrait of keeping true to themselves—soaking in everything that surrounds them. But it's only their second album, and it's going quite well for them, so there's really no reason for Fontaines D.C. to feel so miserable this early into the game.