Riffs and hooks cycle around and around, looping the loop and sticking in your head. Here, a song might be two or three chords played over and over; the chorus might be only a line repeated; the rhythms are in the fine, monotonous tradition of The Stooges and The Fall: they swing, rock, punch hard, pull back, and punch again.
“Skinty Fia” sees Fontaines D.C. wandering deeper into the reality and romance that began with “Dogrel,” their first album. That was a more rock n’ roll affair, though. “Skinty Fia” is noisier, wilder: sometimes it’s way out there, standing at the crossroads of Sonic Youth, Oasis, The Chemical Brothers, and The Pogues.
Since it began, alternative rock has striven to be something both more experimental and more everyday; unordinary music made by ordinary people. It’s had mixed success. “Skinty Fia,” however, strikes that balance. This is a record of experience: Singer Grian Chatten wandering around Dublin and seeing why he went away (Bloomsday); an abusive partner’s ego-bender (Jackie Down The Line); an old couple wondering if their new neighbours aspire to be them when they reach their dotage (The Couple Across The Way).
The experiences may or not be factual. What matters is that they are ordinary, carried by steady backbeats and coloured by guitars that may sometimes howl, but that also shimmer like the sun through rain.
It’s a combo that’s not been done this well since The Smiths. Its efficacy, though, is entirely down to the band’s ingenious way of repeating things – a riff, a line, a word. Bloomsday’s chorus is just the title repeated in a low, tolling tone, like a cathedral’s bell. I Love You’s chorus – “I love you – I love you – I told you I do” – sounds like a man failing to make a point because the words aren’t big enough for their definitions.
The lead guitar riffs on Roman Holiday are as jagged and classic as Mick Jones’s licks on “London Calling” and on Big Shot they leap and fall like the finest moments of the Pixies’ Joey Santiago, always circling back to their beginnings and repeating.
These repetitions, both musical and lyrical, alongside the honesty in Chatten’s lyrics, are what keep “Skinty Fia” rooted in everyday experience. The rain-soaked shimmer of the guitars and backing vocals, though, fleck the songs with romance, adding layers to what was already a complex record.
Many of these songs were inspired by Fontaines D.C.’s experience as Irish expats. They are records of the old, almost stereotypical outsider that is the emigrant Irishman; the lad looking back on his homeland with a mixture of love and hate, nostalgia and bitterness, gentle affection and violent rage. The relationship between a man and his country is a difficult one: it runs deeps, stirs up wildly passionate emotions, and moves between reality and romance, just as these songs do.
Chatten’s lyrics on “Skinty Fia” are as hard as noir fiction, but the guitars and backing vocals, on songs like In ar gCroithe go deo, echo across the beats, stretching the songs ever-wider as they fade out. That balance between reality and romance, between words and music, is a tricky one to maintain. Do it wrong and the song falls apart under its own weight; do it right, and the song becomes suddenly a thing of great gravity and depth, even as it revels in its own levity, as some of the Smiths’ guitar tracks do.
A rare thoughtfulness is required to thoroughly explore the relationships that are explored here, and to do so with the swing and thwack of “Skinty Fia” is rarer still. It works with two emotional extremes, playing them off each other to give a more thorough and honest picture of the reality and romance of outsider-hood.
This record may drop some of the band’s old rapid-fire energy, but it hasn’t sacrificed either their punch or their poetry. It wields them, in fact, with much more finesse, more consideration, and much greater power, so that these songs hit like a rock n’ roll band, but with an old poet’s eloquence.