You hear a lot about difficult second album syndrome – not least from reviewers when they laud a band for avoiding it. I was thrilled to see that Fontaines DC were releasing new music so soon after their first album Dogrel came out last year (review here). And yes, they’ve avoided second album syndrome, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t a difficult second album.
What I mean by that is this: A Hero’s Death is not an immediately easy listen. It doesn’t reach out and grab you right off, it’s more subtle, more nuanced than that. I don’t mean that as a criticism in any way. Quite the opposite. Most, if not all, of my favourite records left me a bit perplexed at first. What the hell had I just listened to? They were intriguing enough to make me want to go back to them, but I was left with the feeling each time that I didn’t quite get it yet. Like the artist was a bit ahead of me and I needed to catch up to them.
Take ‘Televised Mind’ on this album, track three in the running order. I went to see the band live last year in Liverpool – I traveled back from a meeting in London even though I’d been offered an overnight stay and got changed in the toilets in the train station, I was that eager to catch them. They slipped this in as a new song between all the ones we knew from Dogrel. And I stood there and listened to it and thought ‘hmmm, it sounds a bit atonal and droning to me, I’m not sure it quite stands up alongside their other stuff’. I was, of course, wrong. I was just behind the curve again. Hearing it again here, and over the past few weeks since it was released as a single, I’ve come to realise it’s brilliant. Yes, it’s spiky, it’s deliberately repetitive, and it throws out provocative lyrics. But it’s great. Great music is like this isn’t it? If you’re here on this blog at all, you’re likely to be less of a fan of simple, templated pop music and in search of things that challenge you more. You may not be a music nerd like me and believe good music is a genuine social art form up there with cinema, but are at least looking for things with something to say, things that reflect the world back at you and have some sort of meaning (whatever that meaning might be).
It’s still early days between me and this record as it only came out yesterday, but I have listened to it about five or six times already. I love the post-punk opener ‘I Don’t Belong’, which I picked as a track of the day a few weeks back, and which seems to me to take the grinding industrial nihilism of Joy Division and to open up that sound, to free it of its claustrophobia. There’s a real sense of space in there somehow, almost like wandering out of an abandoned factory at dawn and looking up with relief at the open sky over the city’s skyline. There’s an undercurrent of hope in there maybe. And yes, as with other songs of theirs, it reminds me a little bit of early U2, somewhere around The Unforgettable Fire era.
Second track, ‘Love is the Main Thing’ is more mechanised sounding, more paranoid. So we’re back in that world again before the aforementioned ‘Televised Minds’ hits you. ‘A Lucid Dream’ is about as post-punk as the band have ever sounded, which is where all the inevitable Wire and Gang of Four comparisons are likely to come from. But then there’s a bit of a sucker punch. Well, two of them in quick succession in the form of ‘A Lucid Dream’ and ‘Oh Such a Spring’. The former is mellow and melancholic, bordering on heartbreaking. It’s the most wistful and melodic Fontaines DC have ever dared be, at least until you get to the latter which is actually, whisper this, kind of beautiful. Is this the same band who yelled about Dublin in the rain on their first record? Yes, yes it is.
‘A Hero’s Death‘ is more akin to the songs on Dogrel, there is a direct line running through it back to ‘Hurricane Laughter’ and ‘Sha Sha Sha’. The doo wap harmonies are a bit out of leftfield though and seem deliberately staged to simultaneously clash with and complement the Strokes-like guitar part. That’s quite a feat. I don’t know yet, consciously, what this song is trying to tell me. Maybe I never will. But subconsciously, it just feels important. I can sense it, if that makes any sense to anyone.
You know, I kind of dislike reviews which go through every single track on a record, and yet that, it seems, is precisely what I’ve done so far. So to try and up my pace and to avoid hypocrisy I’ll just tell you that ‘Living in America’ is creepy, atmospheric and gloriously dark, and is followed by another two very fine songs before we reach the mid-tempo closer.
‘No’ has that early U2 vibe to it again. It’s there, buried deep into the DNA of the guitar work. But the vocal melody on this track is less weighty than in other places, it sits lightly over the top and like a sail helps the whole thing take off into the wind. After all the complicated emotional wrangling on this album we finish on an uplifting note. There’s hope to be found in all this mess it seems.
I wrote about Fontaines DC previously that I thought they were an important band. A generational band. One that spoke about contemporary Irish culture, about contemporary culture generally, in a way that nobody else quite does. If anything, this record only strengthens that point of view. This is an outstanding album. Even being a fan from the very beginning, they still got out ahead of me here, and I’m playing catch up. But I’m already understanding that they’ve produced something special, something that was (and probably still is to an extent) beyond my immediate grasp. I’m gaining on it though, I’m gaining rapidly.
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