Grian Chatten was walking along Stoney Beach one night when, he says, the entirety of his debut solo album came to him on the waves. “I just stood there and looked at them and I heard the whole fucking thing.” Good luck figuring out where, exactly, “Stoney Beach” is, but we know it’s not too far from his family home in Skerries on the Irish east coast, inspiring a collection about the dark underbelly of small town life. “See I am that wave that breaks below/ I will give you thrills and take your pain,” the Fontaines D.C. frontman sings sullenly over fingerpicked guitar on opener ‘The Score’, setting the scene. Across nine tracks, Chaos for the Fly maintains a somber, brooding tone that’s more often bitter than sweet, but it doesn’t exactly stay in one place. There’s more than meets the eye in the stories and characters he dives into, making the smallness of their lives feel universal and, even as Chatten avoids autobiographical detail, personal in their significance.
Chatten collaborated with longtime Fontaines D.C. producer Dan Carey on the album, but what they’ve come up with is more than a stripped-back version of the band’s signature sound – moodiness minus driving instrumentation. It’s strange and raw, emerging equally from a need for isolation and control. Even when the songs sound like they could be turned into material for Fontaines D.C., you can tell why they’re a better fit for this more self-contained world. A song like ‘Bob’s Casino’, then, with loungey brass and strings that evoke its namesake in haunting fashion, offers some assurance his main project is not about to follow the Arctic Monkeys trajectory, but it feels at home on Chaos for the Fly; as does the subtly layered and soothing ‘East Coast Bed’, which allows Chatten’s imaginative storytelling to unfurl cozily over five full minutes. It’s in these moments that he entertains us with the vision that struck him that night: “Fed the birds/ On a lap round town/ Got a peculiar thought/ Nearly struck me down/ Am I the wingless one that keeps me here?” he ponders on ‘Last Time Every Time Forever’, one of a few tracks featuring Chatten’s partner Georgie Jesson, whose voice softens the void.
The most memorable and striking songs, though, are those that could stand out of the context of the album. They sail a little further and are less quick to offset the darkness that underlies them, revealing a different kind of intensity than we’re used to from Fontaines D.C. ‘Fairlies’, easily the most dynamic cut here and arguably one of the best things Chatten has put his name to, brings to life the buzzing chaos alluded to by the album title but which elsewhere remains mostly a suggestion. Written between places that seem worlds away both from each other and the record’s original spark of inspiration – the Andalusian town of Jerez (where I’ve lived, so colour me biased) and Los Angeles – it gets at the burning frustration at the core of the album, a determination to make it alone fractured by glints of nostalgia and a kindling of hope: “There’s a thing about people that I suppose is alright/ It’s when they smile right at their pain through all the day and night,” he observes.
‘Fairlies’ comes into stark contrast with the piano-led ‘All of the People’, a song that seems to be about alienation festering into bitterness about humanity until it reveals itself to be about connection. “What kind of fool would follow signs that were never there?” Chatten ultimately asks, and as he repeats the titular line one last time, it’s clear he can’t rule himself out. As the heat cools off towards the back end of the album, the ballads are more pretty and plaintive. Mostly composed of guitar and vocals, ‘Salt Throwers off a Truck’ takes place on a cold winter day in New York, extending a lovely metaphor about how “the whole of the city was seasoned to taste.” Chatten’s voice is able to find some comfort and even euphoria in the isolation, but it’s unnerving just how much the album grounds itself in negative feelings, which may have been difficult to process on a Fontaines D.C. record. It’s musically restrained and emotionally unfiltered, both qualities that feel necessary. But just like there are songs here that are deceptively upbeat, even the most glaringly pessimistic lyrics can be read as ambivalent. “I doubt you find what you’re looking for/ I doubt the feeling remains,” Chatten sings on ‘Season for Pain’. It’s not the season for loving, he makes clear, at the same time implying that whatever it is will pass, too.