In concert, Fontaines D.C. singer Grian Chatten cuts a gruff and slightly two-dimensional figure, strutting around stage like Liam Gallagher who has recently lost an argument over child care. His band’s more thoughtful recent album, Skinty Fia, may have brightened the singer’s public image a touch but, even so, it did little to suggest the introspective depths we see on Chatten’s debut solo album, Chaos for the Fly, a record of rumination, folk instrumentation, and the odd electronic flicker that feels alluringly timeless.
Out go Fontaines’ nerve-wrecking post-punk and driving rhythm section; in come lilting acoustic guitars, strings, synths, drum machines, and backing vocals from Chatten’s fiancée Georgie Jesson. Chaos for the Fly is not just different musically from Fontaines’ three albums to date, it’s more adventurous. “East Coast Bed” has a drum beat that cocks a wink to trip-hop and a synth-arpeggio climax; “Last Time Every Time Forever” employs an unusual, clipped waltz time and occasional dub-style reverb; and “Bob’s Casino” has the rueful jauntiness of a Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra dance number.
What really makes the record vibrate, however, is the combination of novelty and tradition, artifice and honesty. It is Chattam’s unadorned delivery, devoid of knowing looks and pop flippancy, that brings Chaos for the Fly into the long lines of folk tradition. Two of the album’s best songs—“Fairlies” and “Salt Throwers Off a Truck”—could be tunes passed down through generations of public houses, their melodies simple but sharply effective, as if carved into rock. But the album is never entirely in thrall to the past: “Fairlies” employs a muted programmed beat alongside its acoustic guitar strum and rousing string rushes, while “Salt Throwers Off a Truck”’s opening couplet “When February came, it came straight for New York/Any colder, they said, we’ll be skating to work” would be equally at home in a 19th-century ballad or a tweet from your local news station.
Chatten’s vocals sound newly mature, expansive, and tender. With Fontaines D.C., his nasal and stony voice pushes melodies around in a way that dares you to judge them out of tune. On Chaos for the Fly, this bluntly effective tool feels like it has bent without giving, capable of doleful melancholy (“The Score” is Nick Drake with a vicious hangover), whimsical wonder (the fantastic “Fairlies,” with its anachronistic references to ferries and fairies) and Music-Hall yarn spinning (the anecdotal and almost garrulous “Bob’s Casino”). This new-found vocal dexterity helps Chatten sound genuinely at home in lonely waters, in a way he didn’t necessarily do on Skinty Fia’s accordion ballad “The Couple Across the Way,” an otherwise useful antecedent for this album’s adventures.
The effect is unsettling at first, as you grapple with Chatten’s new and rather alien dimensions. You can always go back to Chatten’s cocksure and perhaps more exciting post-punk snarl within the confines of his band—nothing here is going to replace “Boys in the Better Land” in the alternative disco pantheon—but Chatten has made a bold claim here as a folk auteur, whose classical songwriting and tender, veracious touch resonates now and into the past.
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