Apr 10, 2015

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Album Review: Villagers – Darling Arithmetic

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4.5

With two out of two records being nominated for the Mercury Prize award, Conor O’Brien could well have felt pressure looming down on him at all times throughout the recording process of his third Villagers album, Darling Arithmetic. The 2013 effort, Awayland, was met with great acclaim in particular, seeing O’Brien and his band, which takes a break this time round, turn up the dials to match Motown influences with beat-changing synths, offering a stunning and unique collection of songs.

Pressure, however, is only felt when it is allowed to seep in, and clearly O’Brien isn’t one for letting it get to him. Instead of opting for the what could have been an easier path – adding to the uptempo, crowd favourites of Awayland‘s Nothing Arrived, for example – he has become far more intimate and personal, creating an album of stripped back, emotionally charged, beautifully honest music.

Choosing an opening track for a record must be difficult on any occasion, but deciding to lead with a track titled Courage is, well, courageous to say the least. It’s a word that shouldn’t be flung around easily, particularly when it comes to song titles. But thankfully, O’Brien has avoided rolling eyes and groans, by creating a simply glorious piece of music. He has clearly decided it’s time to open up and he’s not waiting a minute longer, stating, ‘It took a little time to get where I wanted, it took a little time to get free. It took a little time to be honest, it took a little time to be me.’ That’s a gutsy opening line to an album for an admittedly shy person, if ever there was one.

Villagers’ debut record Becoming A Jackal pretty much came out of the blue after O’Brien’s four years with Dublin band The Immediate, but was greeted with awards and acclaim from across the board. What was evident on the record was O’Brien’s attempts at understanding the world around him – relationships, the church, adulthood, repression and jubilation. But deeply personal feelings and even characters in his lyrics were less clear. In recent months, he has allowed his homosexuality to become more public, and past loves, heartbreak and even animosity are key themes on Darling Arithmetic. Nonetheless, he purposefully aimed to write lyrics that could be universally accessible, and he has done so very successfully. Every Thing I Am Is Yours, for example, is a lovesong that any man can relate to, as he reflects on a new love, opening up and sharing the very deepest of feelings with an other.

Only on the incredibly beautiful Hot Scary Summer does O’Brien clearly discuss his sexuality, recollecting a moment with a former lover which was unfortunately met with malice  – ‘Remember kissing on the cobblestone, in the heat of the night, and all the pretty young homophobes looking out for a fight.’ Yet, it is still a situation that many can relate to, regardless of our sexuality. As teenagers and even adults, disapproval of relationships or partners is a common occurrence, and, even if not so vicious, cruel and archaic, listeners can find a tale to relate with, through O’Brien’s mature yet youthful vocals.

This third album from Villagers is, on the whole, a very soft and ethereal record. Rarely does he choose to raise his voice above a sweet, hushed tone, whilst still allowing his vocals and ever-brilliant and carefully crafted lyrics to take centre stage. At times, the slight tinkle of the ivories or the softly plucked guitar strings can almost go unnoticed, but on occasion, O’Brien bursts above the mid-level, echoing some inspiration from his grander sounding sophomore effort Awayland. One example of this, is Little Bigot. Here, the track is carried by a repetitive, driving tune; one that, if the vocals were taken away, you’d think the record was slightly scratched. But it’s not an annoyance. Instead it is a majestically crafted song, designed to get O’Brien’s infuriated message across – ‘Take the blame little bigot, and throw that hatred on the fire’. It’s a demand that all should adhere to.

When discussing this latest Villagers record in recent interviews, Conor O’Brien has talked of Darling Arithmetic being a collection of demo tracks written on the side, over a number of months and even years (the stirring and bewitching title-track taking form back in 2011), and without ever intending to be released. They were all recorded alone in his home in Malahide and we are therefore treated to little snippets of his environment – be it a flick of a light switch in Courage, a slight frogs-in-a-pond effect on Hot Scary Summer, or the tweeting of birds outside his attic window, on the supremely beautiful Dawning On Me. It is at these moments that we can imagine O’Brien being at his most tender and it will be interesting to see how this comes alive while on tour.

The album is brought to a close just as softly as it begins. Both the lilting and reflective No One To Blame and the fragile Naive are so hazy and dreamy, that without O’Brien’s arresting lyrics, we’d all be nodding off. That’s not a criticism, but it does represent a slight flaw on the record. Darling Arithmetic is absolutely beautiful, but without a driving track such as Becoming A Jackal or Nothing Arrived, it’s not exactly an album that can be played at any moment in the day. Nonetheless, it is a record that anyone can relate to, and even the toughest of personalities can be touched by his honest emotions – even if takes some a little while longer than others.

O’Brien has produced another award-worthy effort. Each Villagers album so far has presented something different, but equally accomplished. Darling Arithmetic is a fine collection of universal love songs, and at the rate Conor O’Brien is going, his fourth record will be just as stunning.

Dom Kay