I’d like to start by talking about Gang Bands. When I saw The Strokes or Interpol being interviewed about their debut albums they looked like they had flopped out of the primordial ooze in leather jackets to the twin sounds of tight wound riffs and sad and stoned vocals. Every other line was an in-joke or another brick in the wall of mythology they seemed to effortlessly build around themselves. For me, before those two Brooklyn Beasts of the early 2000’s it was Jonathan Fire Eater. Belle And Sebastian. Pixies. Television. Gangs with mythology and distance and the air of being from somewhere else. So many different flavours but the same brand, these bands: they were cool.
I’d argue that as cool became familiar and they gained popularity these bands also suffered from a lack of quality control. Don’t wave ‘Trompe Le Monde‘ at me, I’m still listening to ‘Gigantic‘ on repeat.
So, to Fontaines DC. Five earnest but removed poets who were as literate and Punk as the Pogues, toured America with IDLES but had a focussed emotive inclusivity of their own and a concise, cool debut album. I wanted a t-shirt after the first thirty seconds of ‘Big‘, the perfect elevator pitch for the band’s almost perfect ‘Dogrel‘. They are back with a second album. I have been reminded, often, of those Gang Bands and the disappointments they visited on me as I’ve listened to ‘A Hero’s Death‘.
Now. Before you hit the angry button, I will say that it’s a great album. The lyrics when they are good are my favourite lyrics that I have heard in recent times, Dadaist repetition and variation like jazz and self help books stirred into a bath of brine and brandy. ‘A Hero’s Death‘, lead single and song of the year in our house, is ‘Born Slippy‘ without the lager and exists as a triumph of propulsion, self belief and Beach Boys backing vocals. Almost everywhere else on the album, the characters and stories from ‘Dogrel’ have been replaced by universal-isms like “even when you don’t know, you feeeeel” that are undoubtedly more relatable than the Brit hating Carrol’s smoking antagonist in ‘Boys In The Better Land’, but they don’t evoke much to these ears. Not much that I’m interested in, I guess. I hear the ache of being on tour for a year, of service stations and missing your girlfriend. I also hear the dream of playing Glastonbury as it goes dark and the crowd joins in.
This album should see that dream come true. The drums and stadium-ready wind tunnel guitars are braided into each other on big songs, the bass running through them all and it’s a widescreen, developed racket. The opening three tunes build and build from downbeat to BEAT BEAT BEAT but are hardly concerned with any melodic uplift. This record sounds like a wilful reinvention of the ‘Beat Poets Play Ramones’ of Dogrel and a reach for something far more complex that doesn’t quite land. The tunes don’t really peak, or peak out. Maybe because most of ‘A Hero’s Death’ seems to be about wishing you were somewhere else, doing something else.
It’s a precocious roller-derby superstar trying out figure skating in the wrong boots and it’s as beautiful, breathtaking and glorious to witness as that sounds. It’s also one of those albums that beds in after repeat listens and has the, ‘OH THIS IS THE BEST ONE’ dopamine whoosh as each tune starts. And ‘Televised Mind‘, ‘A Lucid Dream‘, ‘Living In America‘ (not THAT one!) and ‘I Was Not Born‘ all start massive. They just don’t really go anywhere.
I can admire these slabs of sophisticated drive-time for dads who wear Joy Division t-shirts but secretly prefer The Cult. I just don’t love them. Where I do swoon is when this young, mercurial band try their hand at the old slow and sad tunes.
‘Oh Such A Spring‘ is spare and gorgeous, no reinvented wheel just bright tremolo guitars like blooming flower heads on a bed of synth. ‘Sunny‘, ‘Oh Such a Spring‘ and album closer ‘No‘, (“There’s no living to a life where all your fears are running rife, and you’re mugged by your belief that you owe it all to grief. No.”) are a trio of timeless, deliberately plucked closing time laments and sit amongst this band’s best songs.
I think this album is flawed. It’s structured awkwardly, perhaps intentionally, with its brooding opening and reluctance to bang on a big chorus – to make you listen. Good. Sometimes the bluster is all there is. And back to those gang bands? They got tired when they started doing what people expected of them.
I may not be head over heels with this album, I may not want to be in Fontaines DC’s gang any more, but I think it’s a great Rock record. I’ll still be listening to this in six month’s time and cannot wait to hear what they do next.