Fontaines DC Trudge Through the Muck of Existence

Dominic Angelella digs into the Dublin post-punk band’s new record.

It is a cliché for sure, the post-punk band as harbingers of doom. The comparison makes sense of course; the genre has always felt reasonably apocalyptic. Guitars slowed down to a lurching and tortured groove while a world-weary lyricist waxes philosophical about the horrors of the modern world. The Titanic is sinking and instead of the string band playing “Nearer My God To Thee,” it’s a nihilistic wild bunch covering The Idiot’s “Mass Production.” Journalists have hailed post-punk as the soundtrack to the end of the world since Unknown Pleasures and Live At The Witch Trials. If there has been at least one important post-punk band a year to signify disaster since 1979, why hasn’t the world ended yet?

Maybe it’s more accurate to call this music the sound of trudging through the muck of existence. Slipping deeper and deeper into the quicksand, slowly enough that it’s unclear whether you’re moving forward or drowning. That’s how I felt the first time I saw Fontaines DC. I came across them while walking around at an Irish festival in late 2018, exhausted beyond all belief. Watching them thrash around the stage that rainy afternoon filled me with an excitement I hadn’t felt since I was a nerdy 15 year old watching a band called Charm City Suicides play their hit song “Heroin Sucks” in a church basement in Baltimore. Later that week, as my girlfriend and I drove around exploring Ireland, we listened to Fontaines constantly. “Boys In The Better Land,” an early single about a conversation with an Anglophobic taxi driver, became an anthem for our adventures. When Fontaines’ first album Dogrel dropped in the spring of last year, you couldn’t get me to stop proselytizing about why they were head and shoulders above all the British post-punk bands that were popping up around the same time. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Fontaines DC don’t seem to be interested in telling you how to feel about the horrors of living in the modern world. On Dogrel, they created a picture of late capitalist-era Dublin for the listener to inhabit without judgment.

Now, in the midst of what many Twitter users are referring to as “a literal apocalypse”, we get A Hero’s Death. It’s an exciting thing to watch a band mature in real time, and in this case it feels like Fontaines DC has aged a decade in the 15 months between the release of Dogrel and their new record. The difference is immediately clear when comparing the two album’s opening tracks. Dogrel has “Big,” a brash, confident song with a young and ambitious narrator, claiming Dublin in the rain for themselves and muttering “My childhood was small, but I’m gonna be big” like a mantra. It’s a fun, ripper of a song that’s easy to take at face value, though with further listens it becomes evident how sarcastic the song is. A Hero’s Death opener “I Don’t Belong” could be the character from “Big” decades down the line, beaten down by life and destroyed by their own expectations. The narrator is separating themselves from the world outside, reminiscing about their past and intoning “I don’t belong to anyone. I don’t want to belong to anyone.” While the loner separatism of “I Don’t Belong” certainly feels like the polar opposite to the sarcastic optimism of “Big,” it also feels like Fontaines DC setting us up for a different kind of listening experience. On A Hero’s Death the scope has widened from Dublin to reveal the band traversing the rest of the world, discovering the issues surrounding the characters from Dogrel infesting the planet like a plague.

Many of the lyrics on A Hero’s Death are about exhaustion. Many of the lyrics are vague enough to be about anyone, but still feel incredibly personal. As someone who has spent the past four years of my life trying to make a living traveling and playing music, feeling the ups and downs of watching a dream become a job, many of these lyrics hit home to me. “A Lucid Dream” is an apt way to describe the way reality breaks down when sleep deprivation combines with constant movement, and the lyrics match the feeling. Singer Grian Chatten describes “prowling the track like a cat on the back of the chair” while elder gods watch from the skies as the band absolutely explodes, moving from a frantic, reckless, almost surf-rock groove into noisy territory previously uncharted for Fontaines DC. Elsewhere in the album Chatten references artists who “turn ideals to cabaret,” and bemoans the push to constantly be “operating faster.” It’s easy to draw a line from these lyrics to a recent speech by Spotify executive Daniel Ek, where he declared that in today’s musical climate, artists must rely on continuous engagement if they wanted to be successful.

Musically, the band has allowed themselves more space on A Hero’s Death, and this is a good thing. While Dogrel was packed to the brim with riffs, ideas, and sounds, this time around Fontaines focuses wholly on texture and mood, with powerful results. I thought the songs “Love Is The Main Thing” and “Living In America” were full of synthesizers until I checked the albums credits and realized guitarists Carlos O’Connell and Conor Curley had just spent a lot of time getting their pedal boards in order.

It’s tempting for me to just assume these songs are all autobiographical tunes about an exhausted band burning the candle at both ends as they realize LiveNation takes a bigger cut of their gigs with each passing year. But A Hero’s Death could just as easily be a meditation on existing through the terrors of the current moment, of the last hundred years, of our daily lives as most of us work harder every day while getting paid less and less. The last song on the album, “No,” works as both a cautionary tale and instructions on a path forward. The song discusses people loving, hurting and losing, debasing themselves for money and getting overcome with fear and grief. Throughout it all, Chatten pleads with the listener not to lock themselves away from the act of feeling, and asks you to “appreciate the grey.” Even though we don’t know where the world is going, and every day may feel like trudging towards a terrifying future, we can’t numb ourselves from what it means to feel.

Dominic Angelella is a songwriter and musician born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland. He currently plays bass for Lucy Dacus, has toured with Natalie Prass and MewithoutYou, and has played on records by Kendrick Lamar, Juicy J, Mac Miller, Hop Along, and more. In addition to his resumé as a touring and recording musician he releases records under his own name, most recently Poison River, out now on Lame-O Records.

(Photo Credit: Josh Pelta-Heller)