It might be somewhat of a stereotype that there is a parable with good bands and their early records, where the first is the raw gem breaking onto the scene, the second is the place for dangerous experimentation, and the third is the album of maturity, where some kind of balance is reached and some kind of voice is found. It is much more complicated than that with Fontaines D.C., and yet the stereotype lingers in the back of the head when listening to Skinty Fia, the third offering of the Dublin punk band that took the grassroots scene by storm and built a whole niche both in spite of and on the strength of their unique, abrasive voice. Because the stereotype, oversimplistic as is, is also not entirely off the mark on this one: the band’s first album, Dogrel, had a snarling efficacy and, yes, a bluntness that made it as direct and effective as a punch; the second, A Hero’s Death, played with a broad range of suggestions and ideas, sometimes fairly extreme; and here we have a third that is as distinctive and cohesive as the debut, as intelligent and ambitious as the follow-up, and more confident than both, showing a greater depth and a greater precision.
It is also, and it must be noted before going in, a very Irish album. Popular on the UK scene they might be, but Fontaines D.C. are first and foremost a Dublin band, and nowhere is that felt as much as here, in a record that has an Irish title, that opens up with a song – ‘In ár gCroíthe go deo‘ – with Irish-language backing vocals, that addresses repeatedly themes that are only fully understandable from an Irish point of view (the splendid ‘I Love You,’ the second single drawn from the record and one of its most effective tracks, is a deliberately political, ferocious indictment of matters relevant to contemporary life in Ireland), and that, on a deeper level, uses and embeds into its essentially punk-rock fabric groups of chords and structures which hail from Irish folk music. This is something that must remain squarely in sight when looking at what kind of creature Skinty Fia is, and this is even more important from the point of view of an audience, the British one, that has at times been guilty of being oddly provincial in subsuming artists into its own perspective.
That is not to say that this is not a relatable record, for any audience. Cutting as ever, and more refined than previously, the lyrics have not lost any of their almost-slam poetry quality, one of the signatures of Fontaines D.C., and they channel visceral, intensely human feelings: when the writing looks inwardly, one gets the haunting ‘How Cold Love Is,’ where the raw strumming of the guitar seems to mirror the disquiet reflected in the lyrics, or the melancholy ‘The Couple Across The Way,’ the shortest track in the record, an almost-ballad swinging along the notes of a cabaret-style accordion. There is more of Fontaines’ familiar punk voice as well, as scathing as always and as carefully balanced between introspection and defiance; the insertion of more melodic sound lines does not take away any edge from the deep bass supporting tracks such as ‘Big Shot,’ almost revisiting both themes and sounds from Dogrel with a newfound consciousness, or the cutting, ferocious ‘Nabokov,’ which closes the record on a very sharp edge, incorporating guitar sounds that are almost flirting with metal as the backdrop of the most classic punk vocals in the whole album.
There are unexpected sounds, too, woven into the band’s own voice and reused for the band’s own end in a way that is as unpredictable as it is effective. Listen to ‘Roman Holiday‘ and you will find a drum line and a series of chords that might belong in a classic rock ballad, blended in with a guitar riff that courses throughout the track and is nothing but trademark Fontaines. Title track ‘Skinty Fia‘ brings a powerful bass hook and a flirtation with electronica that is subtle but all too present, making the song feel spaced-out and oppressive and adding further weight to the vocals’ implacable delivery. ‘Bloomsday,’ one of the most remarkable tracks on a record that has no real low point at all, could almost be a Nick Cave song with the way it makes use of vocalist Grian Chatten’s baritone. And then there is ‘Jackie Down The Line,’ a song that somehow manages to sum up all that Fontaines D.C. have done up to this point and boil it down to its most effective components, a perfect expression of this band’s voice and an incredibly effective one in its apparent simplicity – ever since hearing it for the first time I have been unable to stop listening to it on repeat, and I’d bet I’m not the only one who’s had this experience.
It would be tempting to say that for long-time Fontaines D.C. fans, Skinty Fia is the record we’ve been waiting for; truly, it is rather the record that made most sense at this point of the parable, conceived and delivered with as much heart as precision. Given how difficult it can be to navigate the bumps and eddies of a music career in the present day, that it possesses so much focus is, in itself, no small feat. That it also sounds impactful, and captivating, and inventive, is what elevates it from yet another step in a band’s consistently good series of releases to one of the most intriguing albums of 2022 thus far.
Skinty Fia is out April 22nd on Partisan Records. Pre-Order the album, here.