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Thursday, June 13, 2024
The Observer

“Dogrel” fashions Dublin out of gothic Play-Doh


Stephen Dedalus, the young protagonist of James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” approaches Sandymount (a long, skinny strip of beach in East Dublin) engulfed in a swirl of images — “Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs.” These visions — “Limits of the diaphane” — clog the young man’s mental pathways, holding his creative faculties hostage.

“Shut your eyes and see,” Dedalus tells himself.

So he continues, eyes shut, ears trained on the sound of his boots “crush crackling” over the sand and the shells — “crush, crack, crick, crick.” It’s not long before “Rhythm begins” — “Acatalectic tetrameter of iambs marching” — around which images coalesce, forming a song: “Won’t you come to Sandymount / Madeleine the mare.”

I’d imagine Grian Chatten, poet-singer of Dublin post-punk outfit Fontaines D.C., composes in much the same way (namely, in motion). That said, Chatten’s Dublin — a cash-flooded tech and pharma outgrowth of the Celtic Tiger petri dish — bears little resemblance to its Joycean predecessor, and Chatten himself has little interest in beachside stroll. If “Dogrel,” his band’s debut LP is any indicator, Chatten composes at a dead sprint, drenched and screaming, “Dublin in the rain is mine!”

“Dogrel” is no James Joyce novel. It’s romance — beat poetry — thumping its drum-beaten “heart like a James Joyce novel,” but glowing the fresh-faced flesh of a generation raised on TV and economic prosperity, whose small existence in a “pregnant city with a Catholic mind” has grown out of proportion on the backs of big data (tech) and outsourced promise (pharma). Chatten plays the Dedalus role faithfully, exuding erudite confidence (“None can revolutions lead with selfish needs aside”), fully aware “charisma is an exquisite manipulation” to hide the chaos within, where “the room is spinning and the words ain’t sticking.”

Conor Deegan III, Conor Curley, Carlos O’Connell and Tom Croll — the Fontaines D.C. instrumental corps — construct the Dublin through which Chatten sprints. Planning streets according to sharp angles (think IDLES, Joy Division) and paving them with white noise (like fellow Dubliners My Bloody Valentine), these aural architects rely on the tuneless anger of an alienated youth (post-punk) to be their aesthetic blueprint. The sounds of old Dublin — pub-sung melodies akin to those of the city’s oldest/only boy band, The Dubliners — appear only as whimsical flourishes punctuating a post-industrial cityscape.

Such an inhospitable cityscape-soundscape degrades Chatten’s listless romance. On the record’s loudest tracks — “Big,” “Hurricane Laughter,” “Chequeless Reckless” — he fights for control of “the angry streets,” “twisted up” and “billow[ing] with the laughter,” and loses, succumbing to their unrelenting motorik motion.

Only during “Dogrel’s” downticks — “Roy’s Tune,” “Dublin City Sky” — does Chatten find the space to stop, grab a pint and soak in the excess of his emotions. These tracks, broken and ballad-like, respond to the “company’s” message about unprecedented (Celtic Tiger-style) corporate progress — “There is no warning, there’s no future” — offer an excuse to revel unreservedly in the past. “Dublin City Sky,” in particular, coats the record’s previous post-punk artifice in a “foggy dew.” “[D]own at the bottom of some old bar in Chinatown,” Chatten’s melancholic charm sublimates upward, lulling listeners into a dull sway as they swig their Guinness and sing along.

As for the rest of the record, these romantic sentiments are either buried or in decay. Though Chatten yearns to refresh “the world in mind, body and spirit” — to be one of the “boys in the better land,” an individual completely in control of his identity and free to manipulate it (“You can be a rock star, porn star / super star, doesn’t matter what you are”) however he pleases — his yearnings amount to nothing more than fantasies. Nonetheless, Chatten uses these fantasies to turn contemporary Dublin into gothic Play-Doh, the raw material of his frenetic verse.

“Is it the same old line?” Chatten’s romance, his dejected youth, his brooding attitude? Of course it is. “Well, is it liberating?” Yes.


Artist: Fontaines D.C.

Album: “Dogrel”

Label: Partisan Records

Favorite Tracks: “Boys in the Better Land,” “Roy's Tune,” “Sha Sha Sha”

If you like: IDLES, Savages, Joy Division

Shamrocks: 4.5/5