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Fontaines D.C. gets personal on ‘Skinty Fia’

“Fontaines DC Album of the Year show at Rough Trade East” by p_a_h

2020 marked the breakthrough year for Dublin post-punk outfit, Fontaines D.C. Releasing their sophomore LP “A Hero’s Death” to immense praise from the likes of Pitchfork and NME, Fontaines D.C.’s modernized take on the sounds pioneered by Joy Division and Gang of Four found its way onto the radar of alternative music listeners across the world (myself included). While the online buzz the album created was inescapable, extraneous forces kneecapped any chance Fontaines D.C. had to take “A Hero’s Death” on the road. You heard it right: COVID-19 strikes once again! The band were forced to cancel their U.K. and European tours, playing a select handful of American dates before the coronavirus put any desires of live music to rest.

While most bands who achieve a modicum of success in the music industry would struggle to accept that they cannot tour their breakthrough album, Fontaines D.C. masterfully cut through the static of online media during COVID-19; they aired an album release show for “A Hero’s Death” via YouTube and securing an opening segment for a rebroadcast of former post-punk band U2’s legendary Red Rocks performance. While Fontaines D.C. could not physically bring their show to all their newfound fans in-person, they were able to keep their name and music afloat amidst a struggling music industry. The band’s commitment to their craft, even during what felt like the end of the normal world, was enough to win me onto their team. Much like everyone else, as great as “A Hero’s Death” was, I could not begin to fathom exactly how Fontaines D.C. would follow it all up.

The band would return in early 2022 with “Jackie Down The Line,” the first single from their upcoming album, “Skinty Fia.” As our first taste of the group’s third full-length LP, “Jackie Down The Line” reassured that the boys had not forgotten to craft songs that feel simultaneously anthemic, nostalgic and fresh. Vocalist Grian Chatten’s conversational and sorrowful delivery atop the tune’s nursery rhyme-esque melody is full of conviction and Irish-snark. The doomed romance narrative presented on “Jackie Down The Line” sounds as if it is being relayed by a seasoned barfly that you have happened upon during a late night pub crawl: only now their story is soundtracked by The Smiths. The guitar work of Carlos O’Connell and Conor Curley dances around the track akin to a ballroom dancer, bringing a newfound sense of swagger to Fontaines D.C.’s sonic pallet. Nonetheless, Chatten’s masterful vocal performance coupled with Fontaines’ signature simple-yet-effective instrumentation proved that “Skinty Fia” would be an album to watch out for until its release in April 2022.

After the sonically haunting “Jackie Down The Line” embedded itself into the collective mind of Fontaines’ fanbase, the group would follow through with the second single from “Skinty Fia:” “I Love You”. While the track’s title and chorus are deceptively simple assessments of romantic inclinations, they are purposeful in pretailing the angered lyrical manifesto delivered by Chatten midway through the track. While the driving performance of drummer Tom Coll and bassist Conor Deegan III swiftly guides the listener to the center of “I Love You,”  it is Chatten’s rapid fire performance that steals the show and acts as his greatest moment as a frontman. While Fontaines’ is a band that has never shied away from their Irish roots, “I Love You” marks the first time that the group directly speaks to both the societal and political issues that plague their civilization: 

“This island’s run by sharks with children’s bones stuck in their jaws/ Now the morning’s filled with cokeys tryna talk you through it all/ Is their mammy Fine Gael and is their daddy Fianna Fáil?” 

If anything, “I Love You” is the moment that Fontaines’ declares that “Skinty Fia” is the album that will most closely reflect their outlook on their life. Even the album’s title, an Irish slur that translates to “damnation of the deer” suggests that the content of “Skinty Fia” is bound to be the most revealing of Fontaines’ own story.

Subsequently releasing both the album’s titular track and “Roman Holiday” as the last single offerings before the album’s full release, this pairing gave a glimpse into the new territories that Fontaines’ would venture into. While “Roman Holiday” feels like a track that can be contested with the best material from “A Hero’s Death,” “Skinty Fia” is an anomaly in the band’s catalog. Driven by a drum pattern that has more in common with Irish club music, heavily processed guitars and effect colored vocals, the track is a declaration that “Skinty Fia” will not be your “average” Fontaines D.C. album.

As the album’s singles suggested, “Skinty Fia” is Fontaines’ most diverse offering to date. As the opening moments of “In ár gCroíthe go deo” command listener attention with chanting of the song’s title, it sets itself away from previous Fontaines’ album openers such as “Big” from “Dogrel” or “I Don’t Belong” from “A Hero’s Death.” While “In ár gCroíthe go deo” certainly differentiates itself from these tracks via its haunting chant, it seemingly lacks the immediacy of both former Fontaines’ album openers and the singles for “Skinty Fia.” Chatten’s delivery of the track’s minimal lyric begins to feel stale around the two minute mark, which disappoints after realizing “In ár gCroíthe go deo” still has four minutes to go. While I cannot fault the band for wanting to incorporate their native tongue onto their album, I must be honest in my assessment of it being an underwhelming opening salvo.

“In ár gCroíthe go deo” gives way to “Big Shot” and “How Cold Love Is,” both tracks that possess a less abstract and immediate feeling similar to Fontaines’ previous work. That said, I would be remiss if I did not mention the seemingly lower amount of energy the band exhibits here. Both songs, while they work closely with the sounds of Joy Division and Bauhaus that the band built themselves upon, fail to capture the energy of Fontaines’ past. Their traditionally infectious energy is traded in for a new sense of misery and brooding, which makes both tracks feel like epics in length (though both tracks barely scratch the four minute mark). Simply put: I am somewhat disappointed. “Skinty Fia” picks the pace back up with singles “Jackie Down the Line” and “Roman Holiday,” leaving album cut “Bloomsday” sandwiched in the middle and forgotten once the track ends. While the singles for “Skinty Fia” are certainly some of the best material the band has to offer, their experimentation with a seemingly moodier approach on the album is not doing them any favors.

The most notable breakaway from Fontaines’ traditional post-punk sound comes in the form of “The Couple Across The Way,” a song penned in the style of a traditional Irish folk song. Gone are the Johnny Marr-esque guitars and Peter Hook-esque basslines in favor of a crying accordion and a raw vocal performance from Chatten. The track’s inclusion showcases Fontaines’ Irish heritage clearer than ever before: shedding any influences derived from the U.K. or America. That said, while I appreciate the track for taking us into Fontaines’ homeland, its inclusion in the tracklist (right before the album’s opus of “I Love You”) feels misplaced and unprepared. Again, Fontaines take a bold chance on “Skinty Fia” that does not help in creating a cohesive album experience.

While album closer “Nabokov” serves as a solid piece of shoegaze in the vein of Chapterhouse and Ride, it remains overshadowed by the peak of “I Love You”. As the guitars of “Nabokov” wail away into a hall of cavernous reverb, its effect is lost on me once I realize the album has come to a close. Even though Fontaines’ certainly committed to the idea of personalizing their message on “Skinty Fia,” I feel as if they lost some of their universal appeal in the process. The album certainly has its highlights along with its missteps, which leaves me hoping that Fontaines can find a perfect balance between the new ideas presented on “Skinty Fia” and their previous work down the line.

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