The Dublin post-punk band’s third album progresses the unease and bleakness of their last, though the end result is far greater.
As Fontaines D.C. paced through their July 2019 TRNSMT set in the untypical, baking Glaswegian sunshine with swagger and nonchalance in abundance, it really felt this was a band with legendary status in the making. A couple of months prior, I’d bought tickets for said festival as a gift to my girlfriend who had never been to a music festival. Despite my initial excitement, one look at the festival lineup didn’t exactly inspire confidence (Bastille and Catfish and the Bottlemen were amongst the headliners, enough said…).
In preparation, and in an attempt to salvage the day, I made the decision to listen to songs from some of the new bands further down the bill. Luckily I came across the abovementioned Dublin post-punk rockers. Liking the few tunes I’d got through on Spotify (‘Boys in the Better Land’ hit an instant chord), I felt confident my day could be saved. Thankfully I wasn’t wrong. Their 45 minute set full of tracks from their 2019 debut Dogrel blew me away from the off. Before long, I’d reach certified fanboy status and would soon preach the word to anyone with even a remote interest in guitar music.
Last October (2021), I watched them again at Glasgow’s iconic Barrowlands venue for the second time and, added to the fact it was my first post-lockdown gig after a year a half, it went down as one of my favourite gigs of all time. Their second record may have been titled A Hero’s Death, but their performance that evening was greeted like a hero's return. The band had the audience in the palm of their hand over their near-flawless hour and a half set-time.
With Grian Chatten and co growing in stature by the year, they’re now considered one of the biggest bands around, making it onto Radio 1’s daytime playlist and being nominated for BRITs and Grammys alike. In April, another career first was soon to hit them – a first UK number 1 for third album Skinty Fia (22 April 2022). Where you’re left scratching your head at some band’s mainstream acclaim, thankfully I was fully on board the Fontaines D.C.’s wave of praise and success due to it all being done, of course, with integrity and without compromise.
The new album is an excellent return, though it required extra time to gather my thoughts and for good reason. You see, when Fontaines D.C. released A Hero’s Death in July 2020, I was quick to label it their best album yet and the best record of the year so far. And yet, by the time I saw them over a year later, many of the tracks paled into insignificance next to those from their debut. Looking back now, it simply isn’t a record I return to often. I may have opted for a 9 or 10 rating at the time, but two years later you’re probably looking at a 7 at best. Despite the excellence of the title track, ‘Televised Mind’ and ‘A Lucid Dream’, when I listen back to some of the album tracks (‘Living In America’, ‘I Was Not Born’, ‘Sunny’ etc.) it’s hard not to feel something is missing in the overall picture.
My over the top, exuberant praise has stayed with me since. Which I guess is one of the flaws of music journalism in itself. You’re asked to give an immediate verdict on a record when it’s often impossible to determine how you’ll feel about the album in the long term (see Pitchfork’s recent and controversial re-scoring article from writers who had come to regret their initial album ratings). With this in mind, I gave it longer than usual to make up my mind on their latest. And yes, I’m getting (slightly) carried away again, on a tempered level of course.
Skinty Fia feels like a continuation of A Hero’s Death, certainly in terms of its darkened sound palette and bleaker lyricism. Instead, they’ve given themselves two years to refine what felt like a radical shift back in 2020. Where much of their second album fell flat, their latest feels like a vast improvement. First preview single ‘Jackie Down the Line’ is arguably one of the best songs they’ve produced to date, it’s brooding 90’s guitar vibes are simply irresistible. ‘I Love You’ is equally as stunning, the hairs on the neck rising at Grian’s passionate rant which bemoans the state of Irish politics (“Selling genocide and half-cut pride, I understand / I had to be there from the start, I had to be the f***ing man”).
Title track ‘Skinty Fia’ is carried by a pummelling bass with a heavier, electronic vibe and almost breathless vocal delivery from Grian. The reflective and atmospheric ‘Roman Holiday’ completes the album preview singles. Upon release, it really felt like each single had outdone the last. Though not matching the punch of ‘Big’ (Dogrel) or the melancholy of ‘I Don’t Belong’ (A Hero’s Death), you have to admire the ambition of opener ‘In ar gCroithe go deo’. It brings in choral elements and an explosive bleakness, the latter of which is bettered by second track ‘Big Shot’. Admittedly, when ‘Bloomsday’ hits us it would be hard to argue with those looking for something a little different, though it fits the general vibe on offer.
The only track I truly despised was the accordion-led ‘The Couple Across the Way’. Had this been a minute-long interlude I’d have had less of an issue, but it simply doesn’t compare well to the two tracks that surround it - ‘Roman Holiday’ and ‘Skinty Fia’. For me, it’s their worst song to date and a thoroughly dragging four minutes. Thankfully they redeem themselves over the next three tracks and closer ‘Nabokov’ concludes the record with chaotic claustrophobia (“I did you a favour / I bled myself out / Well, that is what it is now / Pain, pure sky”).
Skinty Fia is Fontaines D.C.’s most ambitious album to date, carrying an intriguing bleakness to draw us back in more time and again. With it being their third album in four years, they’ve definitely earned kudos for their consistency. Skinty Fia isn’t perfect by any means, but there’s little doubt it’ll be high up in the list of albums spoken about as being best of the year by the time December comes around.
Does it match the brilliance of their debut Dogrel? No, but not many albums do and I won’t be making the mistake of proclaiming it Fontaines D.C.’s best album just yet! They’ve progressed from A Hero’s Death by not reinventing the wheel but instead refining and progressing it, even if there are some moments here that ensure I couldn’t get too carried away.