Fontaines DC have been a lot of different things over the course of their brief career. Gobby upstarts, loudly proclaiming their own greatness – “my childhood was small, but I’m gonna be big,” crowed Grian Chatten on the opening track of the band’s 2019 debut – and surly self-doubters, prickly distrustful of their own success and acclaim: “Pigeonholed, coo’ed to death,” complained Chatten on its 2020 successor A Hero’s Death. The sound of young Dublin, decrying the limitations of their home city – “if you’re a rock star, pornstar, superstar – doesn’t matter what you are / get a good car, get out of here” – and Irish emigres uneasily relocated to Britain: “London’s fine, did my time / threshed the truth out the lie.” A band who felt like a reset button on an increasingly moribund alt-rock scene, barging to the head of a fresh wave of artists with noisy guitars and sprechgesang vocals, and refuseniks, declining to be part of anything: “I don’t belong to anyone, I don’t want to belong to anyone.”
Given their history, the question of what Fontaines DC are now lurks around their third album. It comes wrapped in a sleeve featuring a nervous-looking deer in the hallway of a home, its title derives from a Gaelic expression of exasperation, and it variously picks at topics of addiction, relationships and the notion of Irishness as viewed through the lens of the Irish diaspora. If its predecessor was an album audibly written by a tour-weary band wary of the hyperventilating reviews and Mercury prize nominations – home to songs with names such as Televised Mind, A Lucid Dream and No – its great skill lay in turning said wariness into songs that felt gripping and realistic, not petulant.
By contrast, Skinty Fia feels more measured and reflective. It boasts few examples of their punky full-pelt approach. Its default rhythmic setting is slow; its guitars feel echoey and cavernous – even shoegaze-y on churning closer Nabokov – rather than urgent and in your face. One song strips away every recognisable aspect of Fontaines DC’s sound save for Chatten’s vocals – and sets them to a wheezing accordion: The Couple Across the Way is a refugee from an abandoned idea to record a double album, with one half devoted to songs inspired by traditional Irish music. Its lyrics depict a bickering old couple spotting new neighbours (“a pair with passion in its prime”) and wondering aloud what they make of them. “Maybe they look through to us and hope that’s them in time,” it concludes, ambiguously. It’s hard to work out whether that final line suggests that, deep down and despite the arguments, everything between the older couple is fine, or whether it’s a hollow laugh at the delusions of young love.
Emotionally at least, The Couple Across the Way is of a part with the rest of Skinty Fia: an uneasy uncertainty, or at least equivocation, seeps into almost everything. Roman Holiday is both dizzy with the excitement of life in London – “come on before the going gets gone … get your high heels on” – and furious at English snobbery: “While they’re snuffing out hopes and blotting out suns / they claim to know the form in which genius comes.” Bloomsday finds Chatten walking around Dublin, his nostalgia punctured by the realisation of why he left in the first place: “Looking for a thing no do-er’s done / We won’t find it here my love.” Crawling along, strafed with atonal shards of guitar, the music tells its own story. Meanwhile, the album’s poppiest moment, the Smiths-y single Jackie Down the Line, has something approaching a singalong chorus and comes decorated with “do-do-do” and “la-la-la” refrains that conceal a grim story of a controlling, abusive relationship told from the unrepentant perspective of the abuser: an impressively unsettling thing to get audiences to sing along with.
In a polarised era, there’s something cheering about Fontaines DC’s bold refusal to join in, to deal instead in shades of grey and equivocation. There’s also something bold about their disinclination to rely on the most immediate aspect of their sound. If you do occasionally long for a track that grabs the listener by the throat in the way Boys in the Better Land or A Hero’s Death did, the music compensates by expanding in a way that bodes well for the future: the title track’s combination of jagged guitars and electronics, which at points recalls an overcast version of the Chemical Brothers’ sound; the tapestry of almost choral backing vocals behind opener In ár gCroíthe Go Deo. For now, embracing a state of confusion suits them.
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