Dublin’s Fontaines D.C surprised fans when they announced that their sophomore album, A Hero’s Death, would be released little over a year after the triumphant success of their debut Dogrel. Listening to the complete album, it becomes clear that this was not a play at staying relevant in the ever-shifting modern music scene, but a fight to stay honest to themselves as a band and ignore categorisation based on the success of their first record. Here’s a look at each song on the album, exploring how Fontaines D.C. managed to make a five-star record in barely more than a year.
‘I Don’t Belong’
Choosing to open the album with the gloomy-sounding ‘I Don’t Belong’ establishes this album as so much more than just a sequel to Dogrel, moving almost completely in the opposite direction to the album. Where Dogrel opener ‘Big’ cut straight to the point, ‘I Don’t Belong’ takes its time to get started and speaks a message of pure authenticity. I mixture between storytelling and raw honesty, ‘I Don’t Belong’ is a good representation of what A Hero’s Death stands for: a bold refusal to be defined by their musical past.
‘Love Is The Main Thing’
Continuing on the more sombre sound established in the opening track, ‘Love Is The Main Thing’ is defined by its relentless drum beat and frontman Grian Chatten’s low, half-spoken vocals. It’s stripped back, especially in comparison with some of the more high energy songs that appear on the record. Comparing it straight away to Joy Division feels like a cop-out, but Ian Curtis fans are sure to appreciate this song. The darker tone is definitely a step away from Dogrel, but in doing so Fontaines D.C. have in no way compromised their sound or energy.
In comes ‘Televised Mind’ to wake up the listener and warn them that they most not expect a single tone from the album. It stands as one of the preferred singles released prior to the album among fans of the band, and its quick, monotone bassline injects a different burst of energy in A Hero’s Death. It’s a technique to be ready for in the album; energy shifting at breakneck speed and then going straight back down again. It’s quite a typical Fontaines D.C track of repeating a mantra and sonically it evokes images of television static and distortion. Perhaps not one of the more creative standouts on the album, but a strong track in its own right.
‘A Lucid Dream’
Nostalgic fans who miss the punk energy of Dogrel need not look any further than ‘A Lucid Dream’, which elevates the sound of the first album to new heights. Experimenting with volume and vocal effects, ‘A Lucid Dream’ is one of the most intimate songs on the record and stands out as a sure highlight of A Hero’s Death.
‘You Said’ – a personal favourite on the album – is where we see a whole new side of Fontaines D.C. with Grian Chatten’s softer vocals and deeply introspective lyrics. This is where the album turns to the theme of the band’s personal attitudes last year as they dealt with the aftermath of Dogrel‘s success and a year of seemingly endless tours. Opening with the words “You said / You been on the brink, so slow down / Don’t get time to think now / You try operating faster” alluding to the band recounting how they “burned the candle at both ends” in 2019. It’s definitely a surprise after the harsher, reprimanding tone of ‘A Lucid Dream’ with the line “They just wanna come to your place and hear you sing”. The duality of A Hero’s Death, represented by these two songs is exquisite.
‘Oh Such A Spring’
Another soft track, ‘Oh Such A Spring’ is a melancholy and poetic tale of nostalgia. It may be the shortest song on the album and two and a half minutes, but if it makes an appearance on their setlists next year its bound to bring on some tears from the crowd. While they refuse to be defined by their first album, they have not renounced the poetic songwriting that we know and love them for.
‘A Hero’s Death’
Next up, another dramatic change of pace with title track and lead single ‘A Hero’s Death’, a more upbeat, manifesto-style song that offers advice on no uncertain terms, about how to live a full life. The quarantine song that wasn’t a quarantine song, the leading mantra “Life ain’t always empty” has become a beacon of hope in these weird times, perhaps offering more successful advice than any song written during lockdown without even trying. Chatten’s vocals get increasingly passionate as the song goes on, finally ending on “That was the year of the sneer now the real things here”: is this only the beginning?
“Living In America”
‘Living In America’ takes the complete opposite vocal approach to previous numbers ‘You Said’ and ‘Oh Such A Spring’ with a surprising lower and harsher style. Lyrically, it follows the same idea of being ready to move on from last year’s projects and establish themselves as something new. It’s an interesting concept: Dogrel is perhaps one of the most critically acclaimed debuts we’ve heard in recent years, and yet Fontaines D.C. are still determined to move past it. ‘Living In America’ takes a minute to grow on you, but once again, is just proof of the new Fontaines D.C. that’s full of surprises.
“I Was Not Born”
“I Was Not Born” maintains the momentum set by “Living In America”, jumping straight in with the similar message of “I was not born / into this world / to do another man’s bidding” – a battle cry for independent artists everywhere right now. It also starts off the final trilogy of songs on the album, which are arguable the most important tracks on it.
The beautiful tranquility of “Sunny” has quickly established this song as a fan-favourite. Influence by The Beach Boys, the a capella breakdown towards the end of the song perfects a new vocal style launched by the release of ‘A Hero’s Death’. It’s relaxed, it’s creative, it’s philosophical – what’s not to love. The vocal experimentation with other members of the band has paid off enormously, and we can only hope to hear more of this from them in the future. They’ve also show, in their recent livestream gig, that it pays off live as well.
Finally, A Hero’s Death comes to a victorious end with ‘No’, summing up the style of the new album in just over 5 minutes. “Even though you don’t know / you feel” are yet more lines to add to the Fontaines D.C words to live by collection. On A Hero’s Death, the band balance expertly on the line between moving on from their debut and compromising their integrity as a group. They have not forsaken their poetry or their talent, but have still manage to create something fresh and exhilarating that will undoubtedly stand out on lists of the best albums of 2020, on the off chance that it isn’t in the number one spot.
Fontaines D.C have released their album A Hero’s Death via Partisan Records. Image via Partisan Records.