Asked recently what he most liked about Fontaines D.C., legendary guitar maverick Johnny Marr said simply: ‘They’re a band’.
This is of course self-evident – the Dublin based quintet have been especially visible over the last two years, touring incessantly behind the release of 2019’s Dogrel, a riotous love letter to their adopted home city which lived up to their considerable promise.
The former Smiths man didn’t mean anything that banal of course; his comment was an observation on the group’s collective obsessions and relationships, a bond which is fully realised by friends who place art and music on a pedestal way above any functional need for recognition and the indignity of fame.
A Hero’s Death might not be the record you expect, or want it to be; singer Grian Chatten has explained that its existence is a direct reaction to the success and critical backwash of their debut, a doppelganger whose origins lie in the mutual estrangement and breakdowns in their shared chemistry forced by the process of supporting it. Anticipating a backlash, Chatten is unequivocal: ‘This is us…If people can’t accept it or don’t like it, then their band is gone.’
For emphasis perhaps, opener I Don’t Belong is as sombre and downbeat as he’s ever sounded, the chorus often repeated (a conscious lever pulled several times) and the title ambiguous. Is this a song about being alone? Or is it a rejection of the modern day’s lack of trust, of strangers who demand intimacy without a quid pro quo?
A similar question of intent hangs over the title-track, its sticking refrain, ‘Life ain’t always empty’, on the surface a positive affirmation, but as the rest of the non-sequiturs flow they begin uncomfortably to take on doubt, as if under a naked lightbulb they’re just a list of cheap platitudes people throw at each other when empathy has been exhausted.
Some of the material pre-dates the release of Dogrel – the bass-surging Televised Mind, I Was Not Born’s raging punk – but in tone neither are a conscious attempt to link past to present. Any of that hubris is scraped away, replaced with a tenderness that comes from honesty, candid truth which makes Oh Such A Spring, Sunny and No as good a places to begin a relationship with this ‘new’ group of people as Big or Boys From The Better Land were. It’s an oddly baptismal kind of change.
A stark choice is being presented here, but Chatten and his cohorts are hardly the first band to turn a reputation into a post-script. There are moments however which would be grippingly brave and brilliant on any record; You Said and Love Is The Main Thing are, if such a pointless scale exists, better than anything else Fontaines D.C. have ever made public; romantic and urgent but at a profoundly deeper level of both intent and feeling.
A Hero’s Death is what happens when people start to talk to each other again, a jigsaw of a human being put back together. The picture revealed is of a familiar stranger.