Do bands have a “difficult second album” or a “difficult third album”? The myth seems to vary. You could argue it’s the fourth or fifth you’ve got to worry about in our attention-deficit culture. Maybe they’re all difficult right now: impossible to tour, marketed in disappearing magazines, played to a world deafened by anger.
Whatever way you look at it, the second album from Dublin band Fontaines DC is full of difficulties. This may be surprising. The songs on their 2019 debut Dogrel were populated by characters as vivid as those on the Arctic Monkeys’ debut, and were so good that they reset the bar for mainstream indie-rock bands. The quintet ran up the stairs of a career two at a time, quickly playing pubs, clubs then theatres; London’s vast Alexandra Palace awaits them in 2021. Dogrel was nominated for the Mercury prize, and its songs were improbably added to Radio 1’s poppy playlist. They recorded A Hero’s Death in LA.
In the wake of success though, frontman Grian Chatten sounds unmoored, even nihilistic. The band’s gruelling road schedule took them to a dark place – Chatten told the BBC earlier this year, “I’ve definitely gone too far in what I’ve made myself think about on stage” – but the new songs seem to point to other difficulties besides. On their debut, the tempos were higher, and Chatten’s intonation was never too far from a major key; he cheerfully observed “ready-steady violence” as if sitting on a fence looking down on a town square kicking off at kicking-out time. That violence feels closer now. As with the songs on their debut, you can imagine men throwing beer around to the “whatchacallit” climax of the claustrophobic Televised Mind – but now at someone they don’t know, just to see what happens.
“They’re all gulls in the sky / they all mimic love’s cry / and I wish I could die” he caws, a nightmarish image saved from being histrionic by his charisma. His voice modulates into pretty, boyish hurt on You Said, more vulnerable than ever before; this tone crosses generations on Sunny, Chatten playing a father beating himself up: “You’d sooner draft me as a soldier / than you’d have me for a dad.”
On Love Is the Main Thing, love is “alwaysly raining”, a poetic neologism for the perpetual motion of an aching heart; Conor Curley’s guitar solo is outstanding, plodding off at an obtuse angle to the pattering rhythm section as if stalking angrily through a cornfield. There’s more musical wrongfooting, like the chaos whipping up in the middle eight of A Lucid Dream. Where less imaginative bands would crash into a heavy bass line at its climax, Conor Deegan’s bass does come back in, but he keeps it high-pitched, melodic and jazzy, sustaining the chaos – a tornado that doesn’t hit land.
Yet at the album’s close, the stark and stirring ballad No sounds like something you might sing at closing time again, this time with arms round shoulders. “You’re in love and then you’re not”, yes, but “we all know what freedom brings / the awful songs it makes you sing”. Ah, get over yourself, in other words.
That sense of freedom is what gives the album its range: it can be scary and bewildering to do whatever you want, but fulfilling, too. There’s an admiring nod to “freaks who dare live life not as a climbing stair”, and a brilliantly economical (self?) portrait of a man resisting his public perception: “Snowman coal’d / Pigeonholed / Cooed to death / Pilgrim soul.” Sometimes the freedom is evoked wordlessly: the snotty joy in the way Chatten lets vowels roll round his throat in Living in America, almost gargling them. Their influences are perhaps living in America, too: you can variously detect the pallor of early Interpol, the swagger of early Strokes, vocal harmonies from doo-wop or the Beach Boys, and, on I Was Not Born, an update of I’m Waiting for the Man.
Where the band really pull themselves together is the title track, their best song yet. Steadily chucking out pearls of wisdom like basketballs at an arcade, Chatten is now a dad, uncle, brother, teacher and pal rolled into one, the sort of man that all boys and girls need throughout their lives. His mantra, “life ain’t always empty”, is the bedrock of this exceptional album: sometimes empty, yes, but not always. With poetry suffusing both lyrics and music, Fontaines DC capture being young in all its excitement and challenges, its confidence and despair: those years where it feels like you’re trying to find a foothold with your hands. It’s not easy, but then what great album, or life, ever is?