Upon my initial discovery of Fontaines D.C. in late 2018, when they supported Shame at SWG3, live performances were a fortnightly occurrence rather than a fond and distant memory. I found myself completely enthralled by their brash and unapologetic performances of songs like Chequeless Reckless, Too Real and Boys In The Better Land. Five months later, upon the release of their debut LP Dogrel in 2019, the Dublin five-piece had successfully released an album that oozed and expanded on those same emotions the initial singles had induced. Dogrel, or doggerel, is a form of poetry known for its comic, crude, or informal nature; essentially poetry of the ordinary person. The album itself reflects the title perfectly.
Naturally, it didn't take long for Fontaines D.C. to gain a large following, eventually resulting in televised performances, extensive touring, and a Mercury prize nomination. Yet even towards the end of their highly successful year, rumours persisted of a new album in the works. 14 months after the release of Dogrel, the band released A Hero’s Death, an album that inverts many of the naturally confident aspects of their debut.
Instead, A Hero’s Death is a far more complex LP that exudes aspects of insecurity, hopelessness, and nonchalant nihilism, released in a post-Covid-19 musical landscape reflective of the current times. That is not to say their second album is entirely devoid of their previously definitive Irish identity that made the band famous, but that the result is considerably weaker in practice. Even the few weaker tracks on Dogrel effectively outclass the strongest bangers in A Hero’s Death both rhythmically and lyrically. Perhaps it is the result of the band’s rapid ascension to popularity that has consequently produced a second LP that sounds rushed, diluted in its message and excessively repetitive in certain tracks. However, that is not to undermine the merits of this album, which attempts to form its own unique identity in stronger tracks like A Lucid Dream, aptly named to describe the sheer initial shock of fame the band has experienced. This is continued in Televised Mind which acts a direct critique of the rising over-reliance on news and social media for reliable information.
The album begins by asserting a moody and foreboding attitude on I Don’t Belong, which I interpret to be frontman Grian Chatten’s response to critics about his Irish heritage, having been born in England to an English father. This acts as a probable and direct contrast to the lyrics of songs like Boys In The Better Land which exudes an empowering sense of strong national identity and republicanism. On the subject of Irish identity and republicanism, I feel that A Hero’s Death, unfortunately, wastes the opportunity to convey more of the band’s political message. Given the circumstances of Britain’s current, somewhat volatile, relationship with Northern Ireland, especially strained as a result of Brexit and the UK’s response to Covid-19 compared to Ireland, some form of subtle political message would’ve been appreciated. I'm not sure if I’ve missed anything after a few listens, but a few cryptic poetic digs wouldn't have been wasted with a band that has as big a platform as Fontaines D.C.
Stylistically, I noticed the band had taken inspiration from the likes of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures and David Bowie’s The Next Day. Frontman Grian Chatten even looks the spitting image of Ian Curtis, often appearing to channel his captivating performance style onstage. Yet, A Hero’s Death fails to be as creative and innovative as these albums. Instead, most irritatingly, it repeats one line within a song over and over as its main chorus on multiple tracks. Much of this almost feels like the band are trying to fill in time before the next track. Key examples of this can be seen on the tracks Televised Mind and I Was Not Born which, if not for the sheer ruthless delivery of Chatten’s vocals, would sound almost boring and entirely monotonous.
Lyrically, A Hero’s Death is at its best in its verses which are intelligently rhymed and poignant. I enjoyed the lyrical and poetic mastery in the verses on the tracks No and You Said. Unfortunately, in the latter case, Chatten’s vocal delivery, accompanied by a screeching and repetitive riff by guitarist Carlos O’Connell, renders the track verging on unlistenable. It is a shame that annoyingly repetitive choruses and low-energy instrumentals squander the potential of much of Chatten’s poetic lyrical mastery.
Yet for all its shortcomings, this album is remarkably consistent in maintaining its overall Unknown-Pleasures-esque atmosphere, even verging on gothic at times. I thoroughly enjoy the lively drums and vampy guitars on the title track, which accompanies Chatten’s darkly monotonous delivery of “life ain’t always empty”, resulting in a satirical and nihilistic feel. The same can be said for A Lucid Dream’s rising crescendos and powerful vocals that remind me of Too Real.
To judge A Hero’s Death by comparing it to Dogrel would undermine the positive aspects of both albums. Each piece of work has its own unique style and atmosphere. With Dogrel, the band feels like they have had more time to work on tracks individually rather than as a collective. A Hero’s Death, however, feels like a cohesive artistic work. Despite the band's change in sound and direction, there are a few tracks that make this album enjoyable. However, much of it sounds too repetitive and low energy. Personally, I hope Fontaines D.C. will return to their lively and poetically political roots in any future albums.
Overall rating: 6.5/10
Top track: A Lucid Dream