Kneecap, Fine Art, album review

June 14, 2024

The Kneecap album is about k-holes, white lines and low times in a Belfast bar. There is laughter and distraction plus messy company. Voices are raised as the pints go down. They talk about pills and politics, cash and romance. Somebody isn’t buying their round. Always the way, right?

The difference is the Fine Art is made by three artists during a feverish transition. They reference dubstep, Irish trad, nosebleed techno, even jazz and gospel. Sometimes, there is drug-induced fear in the bar when trauma rises and crashes the fun. So, the record tilts and falters before resuming the bad behaviour. This makes it weirdly sprung and often surprising.

Kneecap, 2023 by Stuart Bailie

Lockdown stalled the band’s ascent but also gave them space to write. Early material might have been rush-compiled in 2020 as a baby Beasties – Licenced to Ill with a deal of paddywack. Instead, the sweary Kneecap manner has been mixed with extra vulnerability and sass. Producer Toddla T respects the roots, but now it’s less parochial, more outward-facing.

‘Parful’ is a list of exalted feelings, about rain and good mates and old-school ecstasy. They sample lines from Desmond Bell’s TV documentary Dancing on Narrow Ground from 1994, when Belfast kids from Orangefield and Lenadoon were loved-up in the summer of the Loughinisland killings, bonfires and a ceasefire.

They stretch out the empathy on ‘Better Way to Live’, teaming with Grian and Tom from Fontaines DC, getting philosophical:

Underneath all the chattering there’s heaven
I gotta little peek one day made me feel like I was seven
I know it exists but I can’t stop getting pissed
One more thing I’ll be adding to the list.”

They mock the music biz interloper with the awful marketing plans and they go absent in London (‘Harrow Road’). This crew is best suited to the shelter of the snug, with sympathetic souls like Radie Peat from Lankum, opening the record with ‘3CAG’ and a nod to the modern jazz of Joe O’Donnell and ‘Caravan’.

The tracks are stitched together with scraps of conversation and random skits. In this sense, Fine Art is like records by The Streets, Eminem, and Dexys, way back as far as The Small Faces. You may not care for every episode but you’ll probably stay around for last orders. As you exit by the swinging doors, it’s time to consider the rate of travel for Mo Chara, Móglaí Bap and DJ Próvaí.

They became visible around 2017, a splurge of tonic wine, sports casual and stiff middle digits. They wrote snarky tunes that triggered the Brits and especially, the Democratic Unionist Party. They put out artwork that featured Arlene Foster and Boris Johnson, strapped to a rocket. Gleefully, these Westies were lighting the fuse with the rag of a petrol bomb. Local media loaded up the ragebait and Kneecap became the folk devils they had aspired to be.

Like the Rubberbandits before them, they could make sport with a mask and cartoon shenanigans. They also owed something to Johnathan Swift a few centuries before, with his bestial Yahoos and a rolling, upsetting satire. On the flip side, they have annoyed the language purists, some of them fixed on a rural stereotype of de Valera’s Ireland, circa 1943. The title of ‘3CAG’ is an Irish acronym for “three vowels and a consonant” (MDMA), which could be more pertinent to the urban experience than the old Gaelic school texts.

Maybe Shakespeare was thinking of something similar when he created Caliban, trapped on his own island by the land-stealing magician, Prospero. The native soul was angry at his confinement and a culture that had been imposed on him:

You taught me language, and my profit on’t
Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language!

Kneecap, 2023 by Stuart Bailie

Kneecap haven’t just been offensive for the sake of it. Like many Irish speakers, they were angered by a stalled language rights act, promised by the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and the St Andrews Agreement in 2006. Then in 2016, the DUP’s Paul Givan pulled funding from the Líofa Gaeltacht Bursary Scheme, that brought learners from disadvantaged backgrounds to Donegal. Partly as a result, the NI Assembly collapsed and street protests gathered under the banner of Dearg le Fearg – red with rage.

The rage remains the same, even if language concessions have been made. Kneecap swear with bilingual ease, intolerant of colonial narratives, committed to a 32 county Ireland and vocal about Palestine – famously boycotting the SXSW conference in Texas because of an armaments connection. So, the satire is dumped when it suits, although the stage machismo is more ambivalent. Their celebration of “sneachta” (cocaine) is hardly in keeping with conscious ideals, given the violent nature of the trade and the cartel connections. Maybe this is why ‘I bhFiacha Linne’ is an unpleasant listen.

Such are the contradictions of a band that invites notoriety, that is reaching for a new kind of resistance culture but sometimes settles for self-indulgence. Fine Art is the sound of a city in flux and an island that’s fit for changing. The music can be ragged and inconsistent, but you can hear persuasive messages beneath the noise. The revolution starts at closing time.

Stuart Bailie


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