Fontaines D.C. leave Ireland, reclaim identity with towering new album ‘Skinty Fia’

The post-punk crew visits Columbus for a concert at the Newport on Friday, April 29

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Fontaines D.C.

Most of Conor Deegan’s bandmates in Fontaines D.C. moved from Dublin, Ireland to London not long after the coronavirus pandemic took root in March 2020, a transition that informed some of the questions about identity that shape the post-punk crew’s excellent new album, Skinty Fia (Partisan). 

Deegan, however, had a slightly different experience, the bass guitarist first moving from Dublin to Paris, where the cultural conflict was less immediately jarring — even if the experience of living in a metropolis that felt strangely deserted left him with his own difficulties to navigate. 

“I was happy to move to Paris because it doesn’t feel like a compromise of Irish identity the way that moving to England can, because there’s a history between England and Ireland where they’re trying to de-Irishify the Irish. … In moving to France, I didn’t have to face that for a long time,” said Deegan, who eventually joined his bandmates in London after living in Paris for 18 months. “But it was still strange, because I moved to Paris in August 2020, which is the time when the French leave Paris. And not only that, but it was also the pandemic. So it was a very hot Paris and a very empty Paris and a very pandemic Paris. And that was very nice, in a way, because I felt like I had the town to myself.”

With touring paused by the pandemic, Deegan gradually settled into a more predictable existence, living in his own house, sleeping each night in his own bed. “Doing all of the routine things that we’d come to cherish, or even to hold as something holy because they were so unattainable to us for a long time,” he said.

Gradually, though, living amid this stasis started to create its own tension, with Deegan beginning to feel as though he was a jetliner circling in a holding pattern, going through his daily motions while waiting for a descent back into normal life. This “existential dilemma,” as he termed it, began to ease in the months the bassist traveled to an industrial area on the outskirts of North London for writing sessions, finally disappearing once the band was able to return to the road in the summer of 2021.

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But this early sense of unease, magnified by living in a place that didn’t feel like home, bleeds throughout Skinty Fia, the band’s third and bleakest album, released earlier this month. While Fontaines’ 2019 debut, Dogrel, was a boisterous, high-energy affair, there’s a chill that settles into the bones of its latest, particularly on songs such as “How Cold Love Is” and the overcast “Bloomsday,” on which singer Grian Chatten navigates dark, rain-soaked streets and trades sad smiles with a partner.

“When we made our first record, there was a lot of love and friendship between us — that special kind of camaraderie you get being in a band — and you can really feel all of that positive energy and youth and love for Dublin coming off of us,” said Deegan, who will join his Fontaines bandmates in concert at the Newport on Friday, April 29. “Then the third record … there’s almost a certain kind of hopelessness to it, where you can’t really see the light at the end of the tunnel, and I think a lot of that is due to the never-ending pandemic. When we were in it, it definitely seemed like, when is this going to end? And that’s really reflected in these songs, where I think our previous songs had hope in them, or aspirations for something more, and a lot of these songs are resigned to their fate, unfortunately.”

There are certainly exceptions, including the relentless “Jackie Down the Line” and album highlight “I Love You,” a towering implosion that Deegan said was crafted in two parts, the first written by Chatten in Dublin and initially viewed by the singer as a more traditional love song for his fiancée, with whom he was living at the time. “But it was funny, because he didn’t tell me that at the time when he showed me that little verse, and I said, ‘That song sounds like it’s about Ireland, man,'” Deegan said.

This realization shaped the track’s explosive second half, with Chatten pivoting from doe-eyed exaltations (“If I must have a future, I want it with you”) to a pair of breathless, stream-of-consciousness rants in which he unleashes diatribes that reference all manner of tensions in Ireland, including the country’s current housing crisis, its high rates of male suicide and the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home tragedy, where excavations started in November 2016 uncovered the bodies of nearly 800 babies buried in a sewage tank beneath the maternity home for unmarried mothers and their children, which shuttered in 1961. “The island’s run by sharks with children’s bones stuck in their jaws,” Chatten howls. 

“I think it’s a nice contrast to be able to switch between the romanticizing and love in the verses, and then to snap and be completely angry about it, because I think that really shows the two extremes of love, and the passion of it,” Deegan said. “It’s because you’re so invested in something that you even let yourself feel that level of frustration, or otherwise you wouldn’t even bother. … That song really isn’t possible if it weren’t for the fact that we started in Dublin and landed somewhere else, which gives a sense of melancholy even to the rant bit. I think it has a melancholy because it’s not this passion like, oh, I’m never going to give up on you. It’s passion like, oh, I’ve had to give up on you.”