“Dublin in the rain is mine,” Grian Chatten sang on Fontaines D.C.’s rightfully buzzed-about debut, Dogrel. The 40 minutes that followed painted a vivid picture of the band’s hometown of Dublin: Delusional teenagers drunk on Ritz dreamt about their futures, cabbies spouted Sinn Fein slogans between cigarette drags, men nodded off on street corners, people dragged rain-soaked shoes into Chinatown bars. It was an album-length tone poem that allowed you to see the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of Dublin, even if you’d never stepped foot in Ireland.
Their follow-up, A Hero’s Death, finds the band headed in a different direction — and intentionally so. After spending a year on the road to promote Dogrel, the band found they weren’t capable of writing authentically about Dublin. “There’s a level of specificity and locale on the first album that we could have aped, but it would have been fraudulent and thereby useless as a piece of art,” Chatten recently told The Guardian. “So, I think that we wrote about the places within as opposed to the places without.”
And the places within were dark. Non-stop touring led to in-fighting, excessive drinking, and the kind of despondency that comes with spending most of your waking hours on a highway. A Hero’s Death sounds like an attempt to exorcise their collective disillusionment, leaving us with a more cynical and abstract record than the hyper-specific Dogrel. Sometimes it’s through hypnotic mantras (“I Don’t Belong” and “Living in America”) while other times it’s through impressionistic renderings (the explosive “A Lucid Dream”). “Life ain’t always empty,” Chatten sings plainly on the title track, though the ominous guitars blaring behind him suggest otherwise.
The band anticipate this change as a disappointment for people expecting them to re-create their debut. “This is us as people,” Chatten said while promoting the record. “If people can’t accept it or don’t like it, then their band is gone.” On “Televised Mind”, one of the album’s most infectious tracks, he even sarcastically acknowledges how simple it’d be to appease fans of the first album. “Sixteen bars for the televised mind,” Chatten sings. “Dublin line for the televised mind.”
Although Dogrel producer Dan Carey is back at the helm, A Hero’s Death is also sonically distinct from its predecessor. There’s more space compared to the close-mic’d tracks on their debut, allowing for Tom Coll’s powerful drums and Carlos O’Connell and Conor Curley’s reverb-soaked guitar lines to be fully appreciated. And while this is still very much a post-punk album (i.e., it’s both wiry and Wire-y), the band also explore the softer, slower sound that’d been hinted at on last year’s “Dublin City Sky” with a handful of ballads. Two of them, “Sunny” and album closer “No”, are genuinely haunting, adding another level of gothic unease to the album. But “Oh Such a Spring”, which closes out Side A, features such rudimentary and precious lines (“The noise of the town / The salt in the air / It plays all around that I no longer care”) that I went scrambling to see if it was an ironic cover of some obscure single from the 1960s. It isn’t.
The band listened to the Beach Boys obsessively while touring the States, entranced by the way their records were able to capture the sound of a daydream. “We were trying to escape what was around us and were listening to much more immersive music, music that had lefts and rights and corners and different streets,” Chatten told NME. If A Hero’s Death reminds me of any Beach Boys album, it’s 1971’s Surf’s Up, the band’s dark deconstruction of their image. It features some of the finest moments of a legendary career, but it’s also uneven, with some missteps that look downright silly in retrospect.
The problem with A Hero’s Death isn’t that the band’s changed, exactly; it’s that the way they’ve changed makes them sound less like themselves and more like the many other young, angry guitar bands they’re often lumped together with. The fact that they’re unafraid to defy expectations so early in their career is a good thing. Hopefully, they’ll realize it doesn’t have to come at the expense of what makes them unique.