Album Review: Fontaines D.C. – Skinty Fia
Aran Grover reviews the new Fontaines D.C. album – their darkest and most pensive one yet.
Skinty Fia, or “The Damnation of The Deer” is an old Irish expletive, supposedly used by drummer Tom Coll’s great aunt. Those who know the band’s music are acutely aware of the attention it gives to the members’ Irish identity, and to this the latest album is no stranger.
Where Skinty Fia differs from previous efforts, however, is its concern with an Irish diaspora, specifically in England. Singer, Grian Chatten, said the album is “largely informed and influenced by Irishness existing in England, and mutating and becoming a new kind of culture in general.” Chatten’s writing presents a tension between his own Irishness and the assimilation into a sphere of English cultural identity, a nation with a history of subjugating and oppressing the Irish people, which is also perhaps analogous to other diasporas existing in England.
Skinty Fia seems the maturation of a band who were reared on the raucous energy of the live show
As well as these notions of disillusionment, Chatten doesn’t shy away from other topics, relating ideas about love, relationships, morality, and death. The ideas here are a lot to cover in forty minutes and the bands attempt at synthesising them perhaps makes this album Fontaine’s D.C’s most ambitious lyrical project yet, the results of which take a different tone to the usual, especially with regards to the sound of the album.
Though I have mostly been compelled by Chatten’s writing in the past, this album was the first instance where my enjoyment of the lyrics eclipsed that of the music to which they’re set. The band have largely toned down the energy levels in favour of a more reflective and considered approach. Skinty Fia seems the maturation of a band who were reared on the raucous energy of the live show, (the acceleration of which could perhaps be down to pandemic related difficulties), but because of this, the band become more controlled and methodical yet retain some gripping moments of bite across the track list.
Perhaps the most obvious example of bite on this album is the opening track ‘In ar gCroithe go deo’, which loosely translates to “in our hearts forever”. The phrase was banned from being placed on the gravestone of a woman in Coventry for fear of it being mistaken as a political statement. With a topic that incites such fear, the music is a perfect compliment. Initially, I was sceptical as it felt a little repetitive, yet around the 4-minute mark, the track explodes with this breakbeat style drumming, some great chord changes and a huge crescendo. This track soon became one of my favourites on the album.
The next two tracks ‘Big Shot’ and ‘How Cold Love Is’, however, felt a little lacklustre. ‘Big Shot’ deals with fame, stardom, and the guilt which surrounds them. At this point in the band’s career, this may feel justified, yet it comes across a little clichéd next to the other tracks. The mix also presents some issues; in the chorus, the huge, reverb-drenched guitar riff drowns out much of the rest of the instruments.
Following these two is the energetic track ‘Jackie Down The Line’. It talks of a failing relationship where Chatten almost fetishizes being bad. He said it was “very alluring to write from the perspective of somebody who doesn’t want to be good or doesn’t feel the need to pretend to be good.” For a more detailed breakdown, check out my review of the single here.
After the single, we hear two songs which most directly explain Chatten’s feelings of disenfranchisement with Ireland. ‘Bloomsday’ details the experience of no longer being inspired by Dublin, Chatten’s hometown. He writes “Saw the city hall in flames / I suppose it doesn’t do as much these days”. Though Dublin is proverbially burning, he feels nothing, a complex feeling with which to wrestle.
The lyricism on this album is some of their best, which makes up for the lack of bangers.
Chatten colours this view of Dublin with melancholy, vastly different from the sentimental attachment of ‘Dublin City Sky’ and the pride of ‘Big’. The guitar line in the chorus sounds plucked straight from Nick Cave’s ‘The Weeping Song’, which is perhaps another nod to melancholy. ‘Roman Holiday’, the final single, is another highlight – Chatten wrestles with the sense of displacement in London, feeling like a tourist. These two songs are perfectly placed together, exploring ideas about how places inspire, which has always been integral for the band.
Following this is ‘The Couple Across the Way’. Inspired by traditional Irish music, it features mostly just Chatten’s vocals over accordion. It details an old relationship looking back on their past, reflective in the wake of a young “pair with passion in its prime”. It is moody but nostalgic, creating a powerful image of the past and future.
Quickly changing the mood, the title track takes us through another instance of a failing relationship and the instrumentation really stands out here. The production and drumming has a distinct electronic feel, as if made for dancing. At points, it almost sounds like a Chemical Brothers track, which is a direction I’d love to see the band explore further.
The penultimate track ‘I Love You’, addressed to Ireland, is a deeply moving, harrowing anthem for diaspora. Chatten said “I have this kind of strange feeling of guilt toward my leaving of Ireland.” The song explores this guilt through Chatten’s positioning of himself as ‘The Bastard’. He cries out in anguish at the political chaos of Ireland in sync with the rising crescendo of music as the cymbals crash and the guitars strum harder and harder. The song is one of the bands finest moments, and it is made so much better in the context of this album.
It is moody but nostalgic, creating a powerful image of the past and future.
To close the record, and bookend it with another energetic performance, ‘Nabokov’ is a dark, emotive piece about an “almost perverse…compromise in a relationship sort of rendered as civility.” It can perhaps be read as analogous for Ireland, perhaps the nation “bled itself dry” or “did [Chatten] a favour”. He says, “I feel like I’ve taken all this crap from it creatively, and then I’ve just left.”
On Skinty Fia then, Chatten deals with a complex alienation and a sense of confusion about his national identity, which bleeds over into other tracks which don’t even explicitly refer to Ireland. The lyricism on this album is some of their best, which makes up for the lack of bangers. The band have also explored new sounds, which is a welcome change. While there are a few duds on this album, it certainly shows the band have evolved, and contains some of their finest work to date.