Last year, five Irish twenty-somethings became one of the most exciting rock bands on the planet. Their debut album Dogrel opened with a cymbal-clattering tune that repeatedly pontificated, “My childhood was small, but I’m gonna be big!” By industry standards, Fontaines D.C. are hardly a “big” band, but after just one album, they were already set to headline London’s Alexandra Palace—a massive 10,000 capacity venue hardly ever headlined by rising artists—plus they were booked by some of the world’s biggest music festivals: Coachella, Glastonbury, Primavera Sound and SXSW. They even toured America with IDLES.
Though rock bands occasionally work their way up the industry ladder in a similar manner, not many also do so with universal critical acclaim. Fontaines D.C. received widespread praise and a Mercury Prize nomination for their gritty-yet-uplifting, literary-inspired rock tunes, which spanned post-punk, surf and classic rock ‘n’ roll. Frontman Grian Chatten was a force, speak-singing his way through songs that were just as fun as they were poignant. Dogrel was a celebration of Dublin and the things that make it both colorful and grey: the drunken cabbies, “the bruised and beat up open sky,” the gold harps, the churches and, most importantly, the dreamers and the underdogs. It’s clear the band saw themselves as such, and whether or not their working class image is exactly what it’s cracked up to be, you can’t accuse them of slacking—that’s for sure.
Quickly after Dogrel’s release, they began work on its follow-up A Hero’s Death. It’s hard for rock bands to build up the same amount of attention for their second album, especially with a group that embraces styles of the past, but Fontaines D.C. chose an approach that many artists would find unthinkable—they deliberately attempted to destroy listeners’ original impression of the band.
“We started to feel very detached from who we were when we wrote Dogrel,” guitarist Carlos O’Connell said in a statement. That disassociation is exactly what you hear on A Hero’s Death. Fontaines D.C. sound far gloomier, both sonically and lyrically, but also more mature and pointed. Their gothic tendencies are heightened, and new reference points are introduced: Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys, Scott Walker and Leonard Cohen. You won’t find the giddy clamor of “Boys in the Better Land” or invigorating singalongs like “Sha Sha Sha”—instead, the average song pace is much slower, and they’re not as amused by observational poetry. A Hero’s Death is a reclamation of their identity as a band—after all, the refrain on the opening track is “I don’t belong to anyone.” They’re not part of any scene, and they’re definitely adamant to be more than one kind of band.
The opening trio of songs is especially dejected, but the brooding romanticism of Dogrel remains. “Televised Mind” is a perfect example of their penchant for dark, beautiful metaphors: “They’re all gulls in the sky / They all mimic love’s cry / And I wish I could die / Me or them.” “Love is The Main Thing” even sees them double down on earnestness (though somber undertones still lurk). Right from the outset, a tension emerges between paralyzed cynicism and a somewhat reluctant hope (whether out of human necessity or genuine belief). “Oh Such A Spring” hinges on both joyful nostalgia (“I wish I could go back to spring again”) and cyclical suffering (“I watched all the folks go to work / Just to die”), while others like “You Said” challenge us to slow down and “dare [to] live life not as a climbing stair.” But if there’s one definitive mantra on this album, it’s the chorus from the title track: “Life ain’t always empty.” It’s the recognition that it’s always about the balance—a glass that’s neither completely full or empty. Chatten just spends the length of the album trying to work out whether he views it as half-full or half-empty.
Though surf rock and proto-punk would’ve been interesting avenues for them to explore further on this album, they decided to give their existing rock sound a slower, pitch black tweak, while folding in new elements that would surprise most listeners. “Televised Mind” and “Living in America” find them leaning into creepy ominousness, “You Said” sounds like early Radiohead or Coldplay and “Oh Such A Spring” would be a fitting Nick Cave or Leonard Cohen ballad. “Sunny” is their most glaring departure—evoking the chamber pop genius of Scott Walker, while slipping in Brian Wilson’s signature overlapping harmonies and strings. If you were unconvinced by the two ballads on their debut (which is a shocking take, given that “Roy’s Tune” is one of their best songs), you’ll surely start to feel tingly with the four on LP2, given their deeper emotional complexity.
Dogrel explored the characters of Dublin, and the urban struggles that its everyday people carry, but A Hero’s Death sounds like an existential crisis—not restricted to any particular city, but focused first and foremost on what makes people tick (or doesn’t). Hearing Chatten and co. search for answers is a delight—whether they’re testing the waters on cinematic ballads or pushing their hair-raising guitar limits, this is exactly the type of ambition you want to hear from a young band. After making such a peppy, instant classic debut, they weren’t intimidated by the thought of a Sunday stroll album, and they reached newfound emotional and sonic heights in making one.
Lizzie Manno is an associate music editor, Coldplay apologist, bread obsessive and lover of all things indie, punk and shoegaze at Paste. Follow her on Twitter @LizzieManno.