By Adam Ellsworth
When in doubt, lean towards letting the world in, advises Fontaines D.C.. It’s scary. In fact, you will probably be terrified most of the time. But do it anyway. With eyes open.
A Hero’s Death, Fontaines D.C.
“[The Beach Boys created] a dream-like, lying-back-on-a-lilo daydreaming sort of feeling we wanted to capture,” he said. “The thing about Brian Wilson and other people like Lee Hazelwood that really appealed to us when we were in the mood for escapist art was that they had a thoroughly built-up fantasy world that they’d quite fully realised in a sonic format. We talked a lot about the fantasy of our world and how we wanted to bring that to life.”
“Fantasy,” “dream-like,” and “daydream” are all apt descriptions of A Hero’s Death. Nearly every song on the album sounds like a drifting (or drifted) mind feels, right from the opening track “I Don’t Belong.” The song builds hypnotically for just short of a minute before Chatten’s sleepy vocals finally enter. The chorus, a three times repeat of “I don’t belong to anyone,” before an “I don’t wanna belong to anyone” finish, is a declaration of independence. Yet there’s a tinge of defeat in Chatten’s voice as he sings it, as if the singer recognizes that his bid for total freedom comes with a price tag of loneliness and depression.
“Love Is the Main Thing” continues the mood “I Don’t Belong” sets, with Chatten’s voice again coming through a haze, and the singer sounding like he’s about to slip into slumber. By the time of “Televised Mind” and “A Lucid Dream,” guitarists Carlos O’Connell and Conor Curley, bassist Conor Deegan, and drummer Tom Coll have created a wash of sound: Chatten has to spit his words above it in order to be heard. These songs aren’t dreams, they’re damn near nightmares. “You Said” calms the album down, but there’s an unease about the tune, and Chatten’s use of lyrical repetition — something he does throughout A Hero’s Death — suggests he’s grasping for something to hold onto. Or maybe it’s just a sign that he keeps having the same fucking dream.
As individual songs, everything up to this point in A Hero’s Death is stellar, with arrangements that are clearly a step beyond anything the band attempted on their 2019 debut Dogrel. It’s hard to deny though that — taken as a whole — the first half of A Hero’s Death is not exactly a joyful listen. As dreams go, these first five songs would be considered “disturbing.” If you knew this is what awaited you at night, you’d be trying pretty hard to stay awake.
The album begins to turn with the waltz “Oh Such A Spring.” It’s the shortest song on A Hero’s Death, and something of a palette cleanser. Nostalgia is evoked, a desire to return to something simpler. But there’s also an acceptance that that’s not possible. And, since it’s not possible, the only option is to grab life by the balls, which the band does on the title track. For the first time on the disc, the guitars are revved up and Chatten is wide awake. “Life ain’t always empty” he reminds the listener, and perhaps himself. There are even “bop, bop, bop” backing vocals on the track, which adds a nice pop touch. In the final verse, Chatten provides the thesis statement for the song, and for the album:
Don’t give up too quick
You only get one line, you better make it stick
If we give ourselves to every breath
Then we’re all in the running for a hero’s death
“Living in America” and its snarling guitars follow. Living in America these days of course can be a nightmare, but the band are still very much alert on the track, as they are on “I Was Not Born.” “I was not born into this world to do another man’s bidding,” Chatten boasts in the song, along with, tellingly, “You won’t catch me sleeping.” Earlier, in “I Don’t Belong,” the singer is going for freedom at any cost, even if it means shutting out the world and retreating to his bed. Here, he’s claims his independence again, but he’s not shutting out the world. He wants to take it over, by force if necessary. His eyes are most definitely open.
Corner turned, A Hero’s Death returns to a dream-state for its closing two songs, but these dreams are far less frightening than the ones that came before. “Into a dream I was tilted, into a dream I fell,” Chatten sings on the stroll of a track “Sunny.” “Suddenly my life’s gone easy, where I was I can’t tell.”
Album closer “No” is not as negative as its title would suggest. It is, in its way, a summation of everything that came before it on A Hero’s Death. Sometimes life is shit, and the only proper response is to crawl up in a ball and go to sleep. Other times, life is a blast and you’re king of the world. Both happen, nothing is black and white, so “appreciate the gray,” as Chatten suggests. When in doubt though, lean towards letting the world in. It’s scary. In fact, you will probably be terrified most of the time. But do it anyway. With eyes open.
Adam Ellsworth is a writer, journalist, and amateur professional rock and roll historian. His writing on rock music has appeared on the websites YNE Magazine, KevChino.com, Online Music Reviews, and Metronome Review. His non-rock writing has appeared in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, on Wakefield Patch, and elsewhere. Adam has an MS in journalism from Boston University and a BA in literature from American University. He grew up in Western Massachusetts, and currently lives with his wife in a suburb of Boston. You can follow Adam on Twitter @adamlz24.