Dogrel (noun): poetry of little to no literary merit.
“Dublin in the rain is mine
A pregnant city with a catholic mind”
Grian Chatten barks these lines – the first of album opener, Big – in his sublime Irish drawl, as if he is wrenching Dublin’s streets right from the hands of James Joyce. (Or Arthur Guinness, or Sinéad O’Connor, or Oscar Wilde.)
For a new band, on their first full-length release, this is akin to me marching to the centre of Drury Street and planting a flag with my face on it into the ground. It’s nothing if not ambitious.
But ambition courses through this record, positively oozing out of the wailing guitars, the incessant, driving drum tattoos, and the lyrics. Oh, the lyrics. (Seriously, listen to the delivery of the word ‘money’ and try not to love this record. It’s impossible.) Although the label ‘Dogrel’ seems at first like self-deprecation, the band wear it like a badge of honour. In true punk tradition, they seem to revel in the anarchy they create. And they aren’t shy about the success they’re courting:
“My childhood was small,
But I’m gonna be big.”
At time of writing, June 16th – Bloomsday – was just a few short days ago: an annual celebration of Joyce’s Ulysses that sees afficionados take to the streets to follow the footsteps of Leopold Bloom on his journey around Dublin. Ulysses is an esoteric, mercurial masterpiece of modernist literature (albeit one that was certainly denounced as blasphemous dogrel on its release). It charts a day in the life of Bloom, his wife Molly and the young man Stephen Dedalus as they make their way around Dublin, finding mythic moments of wonder in the mundane everyday.
And Dogrel, too feels like a journey through the streets of Dublin.
But this is not a happy journey. Those first bold pronouncements of a man on the cusp of greatness are soon dampened by the city and its denizens. Encounters with a cabbie, a tough man, a woman described as a ‘relic from a dream‘ all provoke a sense of indignant outrage:
“None can pull the passion loose from youth’s ungrateful hands
As it stands, I’m about to make a lot of money.”
And the city responds to this ire; “the angry streets they twisted up and billowed with the laughter.” As the instrumentals warp and sneer, the sound mirrors this sense of proud ambition gone sour.
And then it dissipates. At the end of side A, we stumble towards Roy’s Tune – and things get quiet. Contemplative. Indignation has given way to ennui. Our traveller no longer seems set on a path to greatness: he’s just hanging on, mired in inertia. “I never really read / I spent the day in bed.” He once imagined himself to be the conqueror of all Dublin, but is now content to be nothing more than a “cool kid of the curbstone scene.” It seems the dream is over too soon.
But turn over that gorgeous, translucent yellow vinyl to side B – our journey has only just hit the halfway point.
Books on narrative structure often talk about an ‘inciting incident’: a moment that pushes the protagonist down the path that drives the story onwards. And so we come to The Lotts.
Named after a small, run-down corner in the heart of Dublin (and a pub where the band played many of their early gigs), we find our protagonist drowning his sorrows.
“There ain’t nothing here to see,
Lotts on the corner there ain’t nothing here for me,
Sorry in the morning for the bastard I will be.”
It’s here, despondent, disillusioned and deathly hungover that our journeyman finds that spark once again: that moment of sudden realisation:
“Devil is the morning and a meiser with a gun,
Looking for a few coins ‘what you want son?
Manger for the evening, or a presidential run?’ ”
Who amongst us has not had a morning like this? Head pounding, stomach churning, resolving that it’s time to bloody well sort it out. For our wanderer, it comes with the recognition that settling for less – numbing yourself with a work routine, religion, patriotism, whatever – is not enough. It’s death, by increments.
But finding that ambition again also means finding that rage again. He sneers down at the city he calls home and its Dubliners.
His cutting assessment of them all:
He is once again determined to become something big. But now it’s bigger than Dublin. The horizons have expanded.
Now, his sights are set on a better land.
It’s no coincidence that Boys in the Better Land is the album’s most commercial moment: a jangly indie-pop anthem with a catchy lyrical refrain. To make it big, he’s ready to leave Dublin behind. Get himself a good car, and get out of here.
In real life, Fontaines D.C. are already making it big. They’re attracting worldwide attention off the back of their debut record and have even performed on an American late night talk show with Jimmy Fallon (Boys in the Better Land, what else?).
But for our wanderer, the better land never arrives.
By the end of the record, we’ve come full circle. Like Leopold Bloom returning home to Molly, or Odysseus finally reaching Ithica and Penelope, we’re back to Dublin in the rain. He opened the record staking a claim to all of Dublin. He closes it with dominion over only “the bottom half of some old bar in Chinatown.”
Our protagonist has fallen foul of his own ambition. We leave him lost in drink and mistreating women, tripping along disaster.
And that’s Dogrel. A record, in my opinion, “with a face like sin, and a heart like a James Joyce novel.”
A playlist inspired by this week’s record, in case your ears haven’t been treated enough yet today.