Fontaines DC’s debut album, Dogrel¸ arrives on a wave of hype unprecedented for an Irish band. Certain Irish tastemakers are hailing them as the second coming of everyone from The Pogues to The Undertones. Almost inevitably, there has been the grumblings of a backlash. The most common charge is that, bar lead singer Grian Chatten, they’re not even Dubliners.
These critics miss the point. There are two types of Irish countryfolk who make their way to the capital; those purely serving a sentence in a well-paid job until they can afford to move back home, and those who fall in love with the place. Fontaines DC are clearly the latter; the very first word on Dogrel is “Dublin” after all. It kicks off the startling lyric “Dublin in the rain is mine/a pregnant city with a Catholic mind” from the frenetic opener “Big”. In interviews, the band have talked about their love for storytelling and their single artwork has featured Dublin characters of yore. The narrator of “Big” is very twenty-first century persona though; a Conor McGregor-level self-aggrandiser who knows that he’s destined for bigger things.
We get a brief slowdown with “Sha Sha Sha”, which is reminiscent of early Arctic Monkeys, and then with a gentle introduction, we’re thrown into a nightmarish slide and swoop of guitar with “Too Real”. A song akin to being cornered by a coked-up banker in a bar on the Silicon Docks, Chatten snarls “as it stands I’m about to make a lot of money/gold harps on the side”. The aggressive exhortation “is it too real for ya?” is unadulterated Dublin.
The past is never too far from Fontaines DC’s mind. “Television Screens” is almost a quaint apocalyptic image in the digital era. “The Lotts” harks back to an earlier age, both musically and lyrically. Conor Deegan III’s fantastic bassline is reminiscent of Joy Division, and the lyrics referencing “your churches and your queens” and Dublin’s infamous tenements bring a certain timelessness to the all-too-current problems of poverty in the city.
The band’s singles, which have been knocking around for the best part of two years now, have received new mixes for the album, and in the main they are huge improvements. “Hurricane Laughter” is all the more dissociative and hopeless for its new tighter production, with the closing repeated line “there is no connection available” ever more sinister. The radio friendly “Liberty Belle” is even more sing-along than before. “Boys in the Better Land” earned the band a clickbait-y Guardian headline about Anglophobia (regarding the line about an immigrant taxi driver who “spits out ‘Brits out’/ always smokes Carrolls”). Like the non-album B-side “Winter in the Sun” it’s another one of the band’s sharply observed portraits of Irish life, notably the Irish tendency to assume every other country is better than this one.
While putting “Chequeless Reckless” in the middle of the album is slightly odd, the song loses none of its crazed O’Connell Street preacher quality. Gentrification of the city is never far from the surface of Fontaines DC’s mind, and the “empty glasses ringing all across the nation” damns a society where €15 G&Ts sit alongside hotel-dwelling, recently evicted single parent families. This is spelled out less explicitly in the album highlight, “Roy’s Tune”, where an office drone remembers his youth when his “eyes weren’t dead”. The gorgeous Johnny Marr-like guitar lends a wistful poignancy to the conflicted musings of a man who likes the comforts corporate life brings but resents the social costs. “Roy’s Tune” makes Dogrel worth the price of admission alone. “Hey love, are you hanging on?” Chatten asks, and suddenly that Dublin gruffness is very tender indeed.
Closing with the classic Irish move of putting a tragic love song to a traditional melody (the love song is “Dublin City Sky” and the traditional melody is, er, The Pogues’ “Sally MacLennane”) Dogrel shows a band willing to take risks. Not only do they embrace the frenetic punk that made them famous, but they proudly affirm their native influences. Literate, astute lyrics abound in every single moment of this album, and it’s not only book-smart but emotionally intelligent too. The days of Irish rock copying London and New York are done; here is an album best heard on decent headphones while walking the warren-y, rundown streets of inner city Dublin.