As someone who was a fan from the beginning, it’s been a joy to watch the rapid ascent of Fontaines DC. After the punky, plucky debut there was no way of predicting how quickly they would grow, how much music they would release in such a short time, how they would challenge themselves with each new album, trying something new instead of sticking to the underdog formula that proved so successful for them the first time around. The phrase ‘go big or go home’ is overused, but if there is an example of a band that has gone big in the last few years it would have to be these boys from Dublin. Skinty Fia, then, has a lot to live up to. The debates over whether Dogrel or A Hero’s Death is the better album have raged on ever since the latter was released, but there can be no doubt that they are both adored. But Skinty Fia would be their third album in just over three years – surely there had to be some questions over whether they could keep up the pace.
If there was, they almost totally eradicate them with the album’s opening song (which I’m not going to type out the name of because I don’t know how to find the required accents on my keyboard). Inspired by the story of Margaret Keene, and Irish woman who died in Coventry only to have the Church of England insist that there must be a translation of the Irish Gaelic phrase her family wanted on her gravestone, this song highlights one of the main focuses of Skinty Fia. It is, at times, a passionate look at the band’s feelings on being an Irish band living in England, how the contradictions in cultures show themselves at times, how, like Margaret Keene, you can often be reminded of your ‘otherness’ at unexpected times. As well as that, though, this is the band’s most musically experimental song so far, opening the album with a more art-rock sound than they have ever come close to so far. It sets the listener up for another wild ride on the Fontaines DC rollercoaster.
It feels like a bit of a shame that, following such an impactful and amazing opener, the following two songs simply don’t create the same excitement. ‘Big Shot’ is a little ploddy. And while I enjoy the verses of ‘How Cold Love Is’ I do have to have to say that the chorus leaves me, well, a little cold. But then we’re onto ‘Jackie Down The Line’, the first single from the album, and we’re reminded of why we are so excited by this band in the first place. This is a cracking, raucous song with the best melody the band has put out to date, verses that make your shoulders move and a chorus that will stick in your head for days. This song promises to be an all-time classic and will be played in indie clubs for decades.
But at this point, a bit of a pattern begins to form. While Fontaines DC put out two very different (but equally accomplished) albums at the start of their career, on this album they are almost trying to do too many different things at once. And while the album features some of the best songs they’ve released so far, it also features more than a few lulls. ‘Bloomsday’, for example, bores me to tears. Try as I might, I also can’t really get into ‘The Couple Across The Way’. With an unfamiliar musical backdrop for the band, an accordion plays while Grian tells something like a love story in a tone approaching spoken word. In a way, I applaud that they are trying something new, perhaps attempting to further those conversations about identity by bringing elements of traditional Irish music into play. But at four minutes, this track drags. And it’s hard to ignore the fact that it once again interrupts the rhythm of an album that is threatening to fall off track.
Put the four songs I have mentioned as disappointments aside, and this would be hit after hit. ‘Roman Holiday’ may ramp up the Oasis comparisons, but even if the guitars sound very Gallagher-like Chatten is not writing or singing about ‘Wonderwalls’ and ‘dreams made of strawberry lemonade.’ This is another strong story about the struggle to hold onto your true self in the face of oppressors. And as we move further through the album, the title song takes us back to the sense of something new that we had in the opener – the crunchy guitar and rolling percussion, under Grian’s growl, creating the most addictive and powerful song on offer. Closing duo ‘I Love You’ and ‘Nabokov’ are equally successful, with the former featuring the band’s best lyrics so far. If you hear a better couplet than ‘And I loved ye like a penny loves the pocket of a priest/And I’ll love you till the grass around my gravestone is deceased’ this year then I’ll be surprised. It’s a big way to end an album that started so strongly.
So how to feel about an album that has so many highs but also, undoubtedly, sags at times too? Well, I’m not disappointed or put off. This band has been relentless and the moments that stand out on this album show that they are still growing as a group, refusing to rest on their laurels, and learning as they go. This album has their best lyrics so far, too. But it is less consistent than its two predecessors and that could suggest that a longer gap between releases might have been a benefit. That said, part of what makes them who they are is the pace at which they work and when you get songs like the opener, ‘Jackie Down The Line’, ‘Skinty Fia’, and ‘I Love You’, you can probably forgive the odd ‘Bloomsday.’ They’re still frontrunners in the competition for best indie-rock band on the planet.
Words by Fran Slater