Looking at where Fontaines D.C. are now, it’s hard to work out how things actually got here. Before Idles laid down the gauntlet for lairy post-punk to become a mainstream (or at least mainstream-adjacent) presence, it’s not like this Irish mob had all that much of a presence, and steam only started to pick up with a series of singles that followed and proved partly responsible for the floodgates bursting open. It’s gotten to a point where they’re arguably next in line to become the genre’s flag-bearers, but it’s worth considering how warranted that all is. After all, none of Fontaines D.C.’s singles have been particularly awful, but they’ve lacked a depth and detail that could really serve as a boon for their longevity that, up to now, has been more reminiscent of Slaves’ thinness than anything more. That’s not to say that there’s no potential there, especially for a band like this, but Dogrel is arriving among a wave of cautious optimism as opposed to the guaranteed adoration that seems to have been simmering elsewhere.
At least, that’s how things seemed, anyway. The fact that Dogrel has been met with such universal, unanimous acclaim shows how clearly the hype around Fontaines D.C. is being realised to so many, even if a lot of the most vehement praise can be zeroed in on the artier, 6 Music-affiliated stripe of critic that will so naturally gravitate to something like this. But even from a perspective outside of that circle, this is still a good album, even if doesn’t actually hit the unfeasibly high watermarks set for it. Mostly though, those imperfections that are so easy to single out feel like part of the point; with a title that comes from a variety of working-class Irish poetry, it feels like Fontaines D.C. are trying to thrust that ethos into the modern day with this album, and as far as the grotty, confrontational, honest and uneven presentation goes, they do a good job.
It works on a case of where this sound and these ideas come from as well, namely taking a dense, bass-heavy brand of post-punk and cross-breeding it with a simplicity and street-level punch that’s always been rooted in various definitions of punk. It’s why Big feels like the ideal opening salvo, as rollicking guitars brawl with hammered-out bells for less than two minutes, and Grian Chatten establishes himself as a frontman shunning any sort of artifice or insincerity that could mask his roughnecked Irish brogue. It ups the sense of rowdiness on tracks like Hurricane Laughter and Chequeless Reckless, tracks that instrumentally have the buzzy, based-out quality that could easily belong to a Slaves song, but don’t feel nearly as performative or as though they’re being delivered by a character. Even with the lack of range that he has (though to be clear, a good number of moments here do enough with Chatten’s monotone for it to be a feature rather than a flaw), Fontaines D.C. can do enough with what they have to keep it interesting, like the dreamy Britpop lilt of Roy’s Tune or the quintessentially Irish sway that’s so integral to Dublin City Sky. As for the base sound, it can lack a spark at points, not helped by the fact that post-punk like this is so in vogue at the minute and there’s no real way to get around it other than completely reworking the sound, but Dogrel’s everyman aesthetic is one that’s worn on its sleeve even in its flaws, and that’s easy to respect.
It’s a feature that forms an integral part of the writing too, especially considering that Fontaines D.C.’s portrayal of Ireland is one that comes across as unwaveringly restrictive and stagnant, to the point where Big’s refrain of “My childhood was small / But I’m gonna be big” comes from a place of abject cynicism over anything else. It could easily come across as churlish, but there’s something about Chatten that feels so desensitised and weary about it all that makes it work, approaching the casual antisocial atmospheres on Sha Sha Sha and Liberty Bell or exploitative industry on Roy’s Tune with the seen-it-all-before attitude that paints a depressingly normalised picture. And yet, it’s a reality that’s difficult to avoid, as divides run rampant on Chequeless Reckless and Boys In The Better Land and there’s not a lot that can be done other than speak out against it. It’s a rather truncated narrative all things considered, but the grime layered on each individual snapshot is compelling, and even among a frustrating habit for repetition of full verses that can make some of these tracks feel even more like they’re chasing their tails, the impact of the poetry that acts as such an important cornerstone comes though effectively.
As such, Dogrel feels like a rather classic example of a debut album that has a lot more to offer; the groundwork is laid down and some impressive work is done on it, but the roadmap suggests that Fontaines D.C. are ready to do a lot more. And that’s not to denigrate what’s here either, especially in efforts made to channel a classic punk spirit that captures a down-to-earth spirit so effectively. The sound especially could do with a few tweaks, if only to get end results that could be taken a bit further, but on the whole this is all remarkably solid stuff from a band who’ve definitely earned the hype they’ve been bestowed. Perhaps it’s not quite as transcendent as some have been making it out to be, but it doesn’t really need to be; there’s quality here regardless, and for now anyway, that’s enough.
For fans of: Idles, Shame, Preoccupations
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Dogrel’ by Fontaines D.C. is out now on Partisan Records.