Ireland’s Fontaines D.C. are among the recent wave of bands (including IDLES, black midi, and Sleaford Mods) from across the Atlantic who have embraced the punk and post-punk roots of their home countries, only to discover as much, if not more, of an audience for it Stateside. Proudly patriotic and noticeably well-read, Fontaines D.C. namecheck Irish authors and poets in their searching, moody songs.
Its 2019 debut, Dogrel, is arguably the band’s best work thus far. Fans of Arctic Monkeys’ debut will find a similar gutsiness in the sharply defined, Dublin-based persona and proud regional accent. Grounded, raw, self-aware, and unfettered, the Mercury Prize-nominated Dogrel came with such gems as the one-two punch of the James Joyce-referencing “Boys In The Better Land” and the frantic rhythms of “Hurricane Laughter.”
Fontaines D.C.’s second album, 2020’s A Hero’s Death, which garnered a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Album, came fast on the heels of Dogrel. Predictably, A Hero’s Death focused on the young band’s experience on the road, and the disassociation that comes with speedy escalation up the musical ranks. There are moments of exquisite Joy Division-esque melancholy on “Love Is The Main Thing” and pure rage in the Iggy Pop-inspired “Living In America.” But A Hero’s Death lost the unique point of view of Dogrel, as well as the charm of its rough-and-ready style, trading in for a more polished, produced sound.
On its third album, Skinty Fia (an old Irish curse phrase that loosely translates to “the damnation of the deer”), Fontaines D.C. takes yet another predictable turn, that of a band now at a physical remove from its hometown. The benefit of this is looking at Ireland with the perspective of distance (via London, England, the band members’ current city of residence) and mining the anti-Irishness toward their home country’s diaspora—something Fontaines D.C. experiences through both micro- and macro-aggressions—for lyrical fodder. If only the music rose to meet that fertile material.
The group actually draws the majority of the musical influences on Skinty Fias from ’90s London. Electronic experimentations in the style of Primal Scream and Death In Vegas are heard on the title track and “Big Shot.” These are joined by more American ’90s influences like Mazzy Star (and early 2000s ones like The Strokes) on “Bloomsday” and “How Cold Love Is.” More than anything, however, Skinty Fia’s plodding progression and miserabilist overtones come across like cut-rate versions of Bauhaus’ chilly gothic vibes and the aforementioned Joy Division’s claustrophobic dirge, only without the benefit of the latter group’s inimitable basslines.
This kaleidoscope of influences works against Fontaines D.C., a band at its strongest when the identity is boldly outlined, as during the Dogrel era. The doom-and-gloom Skinty Fia still contains its standout moments, such as “Jackie Down The Line.” It’s a song about simply being bad, as vocalist Grian Chatten heartlessly exults over jubilant, Johnny Marr-like guitar riffs: “I don’t think / We’d rhyme / I will make your secrets mine / I will hate ye / I’ll debase ye / I am Jackie down the line.” The ruthlessness is palpable.
Also rising above the rest is “I Love You,” not about a person, but rather about Ireland itself. Despite the eye-rolling title, nationalism has never sounded as romantic as when Chatten proclaims, “I love you / Imagine a world without you / It’s only ever you / I only think of you / And if it’s a blessing / I want it for you.” Echoes of Stone Roses’ “I Wanna Be Adored” underscore his words, “If I must have a future / I want it with you.” These sentiments can easily be ascribed to all objects of affections, though especially human ones.
What made Fontaines D.C. stand out on Dogrel—the Irish identity-focused narrative propelled by balls-out rock—is exactly what gets lost on Skinty Fia. The identity that was the band’s calling card is now the whipping stick on tracks like “Roman Holiday” (a dead ringer at times for Echo And The Bunnymen’s “Killing Moon”) where, as transplants, Fontaines D.C. look for acceptance and belonging. On the storytelling opener “In ár gCroíthe go deo,” once removed from Ireland, Irish pride is decimated and replaced by mistrust. The pogo-ready rhythms have given way to static walls of guitar and a monotonous vocal delivery that drags, rather than drives, the album.
Fontaines D.C. continue to draw in new listeners with each album, but the band has never quite lived up to the early praise. Yet, somehow, they have a finger twisted in the heartstrings of those fans who accept the group’s diminishing returns and lack of delivery, swallowing disappointment and embracing the music that does succeed. Like the band itself, they’re hoping for better next time.