“Like a Rolling Stone”, “She’s Leaving Home”, “Living For the City”, “Closer to Fine”. Popular music has always been a medium where artists have invited listeners to join them in wrestling with themes of place, home, grounding, displacement, and transition. In songs and album themes, ‘place’ can be both a literal subject and a metaphorical stand-in for a sense of self and orientation. With the release of their third studio album, Skinty Fia, Irish band Fontaines D.C. deliver a brooding post-punk sensual feast with a distinctly Irish flavor where longing, alienation, and malice simmer just under the surface.
The very term “skinty fia”, from which the album and one of the ten tracks derive their title, is a self-conscious act of identity. It recognizes the elemental bonds of place and identity as Fontaines D.C.—whose very name contains initials for “Dublin City”—ponder diasporic identity while settling into life in London and on the road. Post-punk has historically explored questions of place and alienation, often framing them in the throes of adolescence and terms of psychic, emotional, and temporal concerns. Fontaines D.C. regionalize these questions in Skinty Fia, creatively seeding the orchestral sweep of their rock with Irish blessings and expletives as performative displays of the “dis-ease” one often experiences when groundedness and movement interact.
In a recent conversation with Rolling Stone, frontman Grian Chatten explained that the title came from an expression drummer Tom Coll’s great aunt frequently used. It translates as “damnation of the deer” and can evoke a sense of loss (the Irish deer is now extinct). “I had never heard it before Tom said it to me recently, but it was a substitute for a swear word,” Chatten shared.”I don’t know; it sounds like mutation and doom and inevitability and all these things I felt were congruous to my idea of Irishness abroad.” In comments for the album’s press, bassist Conor Deegan III aka Deego, added,” We just thought there was something beautiful about that because it’s really representative of Irish culture in some sense.”
Skinty Fia is a complex and honest engagement with the interplay between one’s rootedness and identity when life and career uproot. Fontaines D.C. are not just an Irish band, but a group in which Ireland figures prominently as a theme, a lover, a sixth band member. In an interview with Jenny Eliscu for her “Conversations About Music” podcast, Chatten spoke about how the identity emerged in the writing and production of the album.
In writing the song, “I Love You”, he became aware that it was as much about Ireland and the grief of leaving it as it was about a person. Yet, this declaration of love is unsparing in its honesty about Chatten’s frustration with the current government and attempts to cover over horrors tied to the Catholic church’s looming presence in Irish culture. “But this island’s run by sharks with children’s bones stuck in their jaws” references the horrific discovery in 2017 of a mass grave of children at a Catholic home for unwed mothers in Tuam, Galway. Chatten’s words explode any move to rose-tinted nostalgia. “Selling genocide and half-cut pride I understand,” But destiny is always tied to hearth and home. Facile sentimentality isn’t rejected only to make room for illusions of total escape. As he confesses, “If I must have a future / I want it with you.”
There is a conscious claiming of identity in the face of xenophobia and prejudice. The album opener, “In ár gCroíthe go deo”, was inspired by the struggle of a woman’s family with the Church of England to have the Gaelic phrase (which roughly translates to “in our hearts forever”) on her Coventry gravestone. The church initially refused the request, fearing that visitors would see the Irish Gaelic as a political and dangerous epitaph. The othering of the Irish extended beyond the grave.
Amid this wrestling with displacement and being forcibly placed in xenophobic categories, Fontaines D.C. embrace language as a power of self-definition. Shaking off the colonial powers of the crown in “Roman Holiday”, Chatten’s narrator professes the grounding power of one’s original tongue over against the “queen’s song.” “When they knock for ya / Don’t forget who you are / Skinty Fia.”
Fontaines D.C.’s new offering isn’t just a literate, philosophical engagement with the trope of the stranger in a strange land. It’s also an expansive and compelling maturation of their sound. If the group’s debut, Dogrel put the emphasis on “punk” in post-punk, Skinty Fia pushes the “post”. There is rhythmic darkness that pulsates throughout the album, reminiscent of the agonized genius of Joy Division. This is especially present on the title track, where Deego’s bass and Coll’s drums propel an ominous, hypnotic beat intermittently interrupted by industrial guitar riffs. Grian Chatten’s monotone delivery overlays this, delivering a vocal performance that belies the turbulence driving the song. Chatten’s vocals throughout the album carry an intensity that seldom needs to raise the volume.
“Jackie Down the Line” is another stand-out song. The first single from Skinty Fia is reminiscent of the Smiths’ ability to frame morose themes within infectious pop hooks, but this time with a darker twist. Fontaines D.C. experiment with a dangerous narrator whose lingering malice bleeds through the beat that has you swaying in its grasp before you’re fully aware of the danger. A compelling contrast is found in the mournful ballad, “The Couple Across the Way”, where a lone accordion accompanies Chatten with occasional accents from a harmonium. The song is a voyeuristic observation of the painful entropy of a relationship in decline with piercing, sparse, poetic suggestions like the line, “You use voices on the phone / That were once spent on me.”
Skinty Fia is rich, diverse, and suggestive. It self-consciously roots itself in identity, culture, and style while simultaneously moving forward with the maturation of theme and sound. With each successive album, Fontaines D.C. seem to fulfill and expand the promise of their previous work. Skinty Fia is a solid addition to the band’s oeuvre and a bright promissory note on what could lie ahead.