One thing about a societal collapse is the stuff with a heart starts to be heard again. No jobs, 40 million evictions looming, miles-long lines for plague tests and food relief, college debt minus the colleges, some old man in a heavily armed compound nods to some 30-year-old junior nazi in a bad suit and suddenly the goon squads are roaming your neighborhood, pulling people into vans, gassing peaceful protesters, shutting down the parks and subways so the millions of homeless can’t even get a few hours’ sleep.
Well then you need music that rings true, that means something beyond twee approximation of a warmed-over mini-genre getting its periodic reboot. The Dublin group Fontaines D.C. makes anthems full of sulking, threatening poetry. They come across utterly sincere, and at best the music is driving and sinister. Songs for skulking around shuttered warehouses and abandoned docks and closed-down bars, soundtracks for heroic thinking in the face of horror and oppression.
“Boys In the Better Land” was the first one I heard last year, for a week or two on satellite radio’s single allocated station for non-classic indie rock. It’s a riot barely compressed into a song, a statement of purpose. The rage is all over the place and intentionally poetic, intentionally provoking the pride of place that cannot be taken by a bank, by the Human Resources Department, cannot be stomped out of you. For a second I thought maybe the song was old, but it sounded too fresh and alive, too 21st Century. There was an album, Dogrel, an embrace of that maligned form of lyrical poetry. It wouldn’t be too precious, wouldn’t crawl up its own ass. Guitars banging around, hooks and poetry to a punk-rock stomp.
Grian Chatten is the singer. One of the few singers today worth looking at, this lanky type of character who sits at the bar reading quietly for a few hours and then launches into some great rage against banality and injustice. Sometimes he reminds me of the moody New Wave poets—Ian McCulloch, Ian Curtis, all the Ians really. The guitars have that Television/Kid Congo Powers sound, snaking around, full of weird twang. It’s all recorded so beautifully that you hardly notice, it all feels so natural until you remember it’s nearly impossible for a band to get a good live-in-studio sound.
Irish poetry and literature mixed with “post punk” sounds like a formula that would be pretty well worked over by now, but Fontaines D.C. make it sound alive and kicking, a brilliant new idea. If you loved that first record, you won’t be reading a review to decide whether to listen to the new one.
(What is the point of the record review in 2020, anyway, when anybody can hear anything instantly? Maybe it’s in hopes of seeing what you feel about a record put down in words. Maybe you read them to get angry at the writer.)
The new record is good. I’d heard rumors of “Beach Boys harmonies” and “recorded in Los Angeles.” Cringe stuff, but I can honestly report there’s little sign of such artistic development. They are still a good band, and the occasional background ooohs and ahhhs are low-key terrace chants behind Chatten’s buck-up lyricism. They still sound like they mean it.
“I Don’t Belong” is heavy with purpose, a brooding commitment to total independence. The kind of thing you write after somebody chews up your heart. It’s great.
When the bars open again, “Televised Mind” is one you’ll hope is blasting on certain nights, when everything’s like a crime movie and the girls and boys wear black turtlenecks and talk revolution over the pool table. As nothing’s open, I’ve found the first seven or eight tracks are excellent for walking with earphones, keeping time, scowling at police. Any music that makes you feel alive like this, alive and ready for action, well that is music to pay for and to treasure.
The single, “A Hero’s Death,” is a Code of Conduct that I imagine the band writing out on beer mats, solemnly swearing to uphold. It’s good advice for anyone:
Let your demeanor be your deep down self,
And don’t sacrifice your life for your health,
When you speak, speak sincere
And believe me friend, everyone will hear
To show they’ve got more than anthems, Fontaines D.C.—a terrible trademark-issue name I just love—close A Hero’s Death with a couple sad-sack ballads that might grow on you. And either way they’re not terrible. I wound up imagining Chatten reciting these pieces over the music instead of singing them, and maybe they’ll try that on the next go around. Whatever they do, it’ll be worth following them, and worth starting garage bands in emulation, for the eventual return of live music and social life, which might just mean something this time.
Ken Layne is editor of Desert Oracle and host of its companion radio program in Joshua Tree, California.
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