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The depiction of The Dying Cuchulain by Oliver Sheppard adorning the cover of Fontaines D.C.’s sophomore album is befitting of its title. However, according to frontman Grian Chatten, A Hero’s Death instead refers to a line from a Brendan Behan play. The Dublin-based quintet fit the mould for what indie-blogosphere and message board dwellers would consider “real music”. Too real, in fact. The former students of BIMM could be considered something of a pseudo-dive bar success story or a neoliberal psy-op, depending on your persuasion.
Considering the band’s rapid rise, their second album arriving a mere 18 months after the first is no surprise. It comes with high expectations. Dogrel was one of the most critically-acclaimed albums of last year, and the band’s star has risen fast enough to see them hit the screens of millions Stateside thanks to their appearance on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show.
To some, however, the reaction was overblown. Dogrel was a promising debut, no doubt, but Chatten’s poeticisms, and statesmanlike posturing in interviews, were a point of both commendation and condemnation. ‘Dublin City Sky’ sounded less like the Romantic Ireland that was dead and gone and more like good old-fashioned Paddywhackery. The musical reference points were pretty obvious, too. For a band so young, this is hardly anything to get wound up about but to see it garner so much applause was more than a little perplexing.
This is all just noise, however. At the end of the day, an album should not be judged on a character study. A Hero’s Death is an improvement on Dogrel—at least from a surface level aural perspective. With Dan Carey returning behind the desk, the production quality is a vast improvement on what came before. Must of the material on Dogrel sounded lean and rushed, whereas this time around we get a sense that more thought was put into the album’s overall sound—richer, with more embellishments and deliberate pacing throughout. The performance of these songs is more nuanced and studied than what we have heard from Fontaines to date. The vocal treatment, too, is more muscular and less abrasive.
Where Dogrel was exuberant and vital in tone, A Hero’s Death is much moodier and, at times, hypnotic. This time around, there is much less emphasis on crafting a collection of anthems as there is a focus on building a cohesive album. The lead single, and title track, works much better within the context of the album than as a standalone piece. However, the band again wear their influences on their sleeve. While there is enough diversity to keep a listener engaged throughout, nothing here warrants championing the band as saviours of independent guitar-based music. However, one would have hoped that Fontaines would have outgrown Joy-Division-via-Temple-Bar endeavours anyway.
A Hero’s Death really opens by the album’s midway point. Melancholic slow cut ‘You Said’ and the soft folk dirge of ‘Oh Such a Spring’, both of which float to delightful refrains, may well be two of the greatest things the band have committed to tape. The title track provides a welcome change of pace, too. However, for all the ambition, psychedelia and experimentation on the album, it does succumb to repetition. The opening trilogy (‘I Don’t Belong’, ‘Love Is The Main Thing’ and ‘Televised Mind’) are rather pedestrian and one-note, and ‘I Was Not Born’ is forgettable.
It’s not until the album’s closing moments that we begin to see the self-described Beach Boys influences that hampered the first attempt at recording the album (whilst in LA) begin to shine through. Lyrically, ‘Sunny’ is the most accomplished track on the album (“Happy’s living in a closed eye / That’s where I like to be”), while ‘No’ is the closest Fontaines D.C. have ever come to the band that all the hype and rave reviews have hinted at. It boasts Chatten’s best vocal performance to date, eschewing the downtrodden sprechgesang for a soaring affectation.
Again, there is a wealth of potential here. The band are no doubt accomplished musicians and Chatten, for all his pretences, is a compelling frontman. However, one can’t help but feel like the band are too willing to lean on an accent as a USP. Music doesn’t always have to reinvent the wheel—Dogrel and A Hero’s Death certainly don’t. The push behind Fontaines D.C. is to their detriment. The need to fill a slot as saviours of a genre that doesn’t need saving, the need to call bands out for being more revelatory or ground-breaking or complete than they actually are, says more to the white-boys-in-bands-centricity of the music press than it does about the band if we’re really being honest. They’re not the first to fall victim to this way of thinking, they certainly won’t be the last.
Judging A Hero’s Death on the merits of its music—it’s an enjoyable, if dreary, listen. The magic is in its mid-section and closing moments but a poor start and some filler does not make an instant classic. There is growth and maturity here, sure, but there should be on a band’s follow-up.