Apocalyptic, unsettling and bravely confrontational. Fontaines D.C. go widescreen for installment three of their developing story
Release Date: 22nd April 2022
Formats: CD / Red vinyl, Black vinyl, Deluxe double vinyl / Cassette / Download / Stream
First of all, let’s deal with that title. Skinty Fia is an Irish phrase that translates literally to “The damnation of the deer.” Fontaines D.C. bassist, Conor Deegan III explains further: The Irish deer is an extinct species… But ‘skinty fia’ is also used as an expletive, in the way you’d say ‘For f*ck’s sake’ if you bang your arm on a table or whatever. We just thought that was something really beautiful about that, because it’s really representative of Irish culture in some sense. We were interested in the idea of something really precious or sentimental and attached to family, but also something that’s been taken away from us. Which doesn’t mean we can’t cherish it.” And those words, believe it or not, go a long way to explaining the themes that underlie this intriguing album, the Fontaines’ third, and their most ambitious offering by some distance.
Fontaines D.C. is proudly – though definitely not nationalistically – Irish. By their own admission, their hometown of Dublin “courses through their veins,” and Skinty Fia finds the band trying hard to reconcile their abiding affection for their hometown and homeland with their future, following their recent relocation to London. As Conor Deegan went on to say: “It’s about being Irish and expressing that in London, and what you can take with you that makes you feel connected to home. We really tried to hold on to the things that made us Irish. There’s a sentimentality of sitting in an Irish pub in London, surrounded by other Irish people, and it’s 4am, the lights are going off and half-remembering these old songs. On the other hand, there’s something dark and a little bit bleak about that.”
And it’s that “dark and a little bit bleak” vibe that pervades Skinty Fia, particularly where the songs recall the joys and, more frequently, the frustrations that make life in Ireland quite unlike an existence on any other piece of land you would care to mention.
Fontaines D.C. came together in Dublin and 2007 and, in the 15 years of their existence, they’ve made – and continue to grow – a huge name for themselves. Their debut album, the raucous Dogrel received a Mercury Prize (and a Choice Music Prize) nomination and was voted Album of the Year by Radio 6 and follow-up, A Hero’s Death, was nominated for a Grammy. And now they’re back – slightly later than they expected due to pandemic constraints – with a whole new offering. The sparse, atmospheric feel of the band’s previous work is still there, and the emotional content of the songs remains to the fore but there’s a clear movement towards an “expansive and cinematic” sound that gives Skinky Fia a new, widescreen, appeal.
The ideas for Skinky Fia were developed whilst the individual band members – Grian Chatten (vocals), Carlos O’Connell (guitar), Conor Curley (guitar), Conor Deegan III (bass) and Tom Coll were all locked away in isolation. The ideas were worked up into full songs once the band were able to get back together to jam and the result is a cohesive set of songs that are, alternately, unsettling, apocalyptic, bravely confrontational and, above all, magnificent.
Translating to “In our hearts forever,” opening track In ár gCroíthe go deo is just one of those songs that emerged from the post-lockdown jams, and it’s a song that sets the mood, the standard and the feel of the album, right from the outset. The song tells the story of a woman’s struggle with the Church of England to have an Irish inscription placed on her gravestone – a struggle which she won, despite the CofE’s concern that the Irish language would be provocative to those who chanced to read the inscription. A repeated bass note and a harmony chant of the song’s title set the scene and provide the theme that pervades throughout. The band increase their presence as the verses and chorus sections are repeated until the hypnotic opening has mutated into a thrash of drums and throbbing guitars.
Carlos O’Connell’s Big Shot was, apparently, inspired by a session listening to Nirvana’s Live at Reading album and, indeed, the sound is highly reminiscent of Cobain & Co in one of their more sombre Pennyroyal Tea moods. It’s broody, heavy, precise and malevolent. Grian Chatten’s vocals are excellent throughout the album but, perhaps, they excel on the chilling, hypnotic How Cold Love Is. There’s a distinct Joy Division feel to much of the Fontaines’ work, but that comes across more clearly here than it does elsewhere. Over a 2-chord rhythmic backing, Chatten delivers his message with determination and a significant underlying threat, particularly as the song heads towards its closing refrain, where Chatten repeats the song’s title over and over.
If anything, things get darker for Jackie Down The Line, Chatten’s powerful, uncomfortable tale of a lady who suffered abuse, and worse, at the hands of her partner. With couplets like “My friend Sally says she knows you’ve got a funny point of view/ Says you’ve got away with murder, maybe one time – maybe two” the message is clear, and very, very scary. Named after Ireland’s annual 16th June celebration of the life and achievements of James Joyce, Bloomsday takes a look at the pro’s and, according to the song’s lyrics, the significant cons, of Irish life. Lines like “There’s always f*ckin’ rain, and it’s always dark” paint a jaundiced picture, but it’s an Irishman’s privilege to paint a “warts and all” picture of his homeland and Grian Ghatten’s love for his heritage comes over clearly, despite the less-than-complementary backdrop. And, just as the song’s lyric manages to be both doomy and celebratory, so the backing manages to be both heavy and subdued. Bloomsday is a true album highlight.
The “transplanted Irishman” theme is continued in Roman Holiday, as Chatten reflects upon his experiences as an Anglo-Irishman in London. Lyrics like “Baby come on – get stoned, get stoned” and “was it the weed, or the moment that stoned ye?” give ample food for thought in a song that is, otherwise, maybe the poppiest and most accessible tune on the album. Described as “…the album’s most traditional yet most radical track,” The Couple Across The Way is a real curio – a wistful song with deeply sad lyrics that describe the tribulations of a couple that Chatten observed arguing in the apartment opposite his. In contrast with the widescreen bombast elsewhere on the album, Chatten accompanies himself solely on the accordion he was given for Christmas.
Skinty Fia, the album’s title track, is Carlos O’Connell’s second compositional contribution to the album. The tune emerged as Carlos played around with an old Death in Vegas tune which was developed into a driving slice of psychedelic electronica. Unusually, the vocals are low in the mix and the effect is disorientating yet highly alluring. It’s probably the album’s most outré track.
Chatten confronts his guilt at “Becoming successful and leaving Ireland” in the excellent I Love You – my favourite track on the album. The focus is very much on the lyrics (although, again, the backing is strong and insistent) in a song that considers the ineffectiveness of Ireland’s political system (“The gall of Fine Gael and the fail of Fianna Fáil”), the wet weather again (of course) and, harrowingly, the discovery of 796 babies’ remains at the Tuam Mother and Baby Home in 2017. Yet, despite the grim content, Chatten’s nostalgia for his homeland is not completely obliterated.
I Love You is a difficult act to follow, but Conor Curley manages it with Nabakov, his sole composition on the album, and the album’s closing track. It’s punky and loud, the lyrics are shouted whilst drums and searing guitars go berserk – perhaps the only way that such a singular album could really be brought to a close.
Watch the Official video to Jackie Down the Line – one of the album’s outstanding tracks – here: