Villagers‘ latest release, Fever Dreams, feels like a folk-rock album that’s been sonically infused with the euphoric and mesmerizing qualities of a 70s psychedelic trip. Dublin-based Conor O’Brien of Villagers has been pushing the bounds of the folk genre for years on his last few albums, leaning evermore into jazz arrangements and electronic effects, but this album shows a greater mastery of this fusion.
For those unfamiliar with Villagers’ sound, they do not quite fit into any clearly defined genre, but could be placed alongside bands like Dirty Projectors and Glass Animals for their indie-folk rock sensibility fused with beats and unusual electronic sounds. And with much more jazz.
On some songs, particularly “Momentarily”, O’Brien ’s voice resembles so closely Mark Coyne of the Flaming Lips, you could swear it was him; while on other tracks, like “Restless Endeavor” his use of falsetto and vocal layering display a uniqueness unfound in contemporaries.
Recorded right before lockdown in Ireland began, O’Brien says he spent the vast majority of his quarantine adding and tweaking with the sounds on his recordings of these tracks. This attention to detail shows in layer after layer of instrumentation and ambient sound. Everything about this album feels conscious and intentional – the tracklist seems to grip you from beginning to end, like you are riding out your own fever dream.
“Circles in the Firing Line” is a 7-minute masterpiece that reveals the full scope of Villagers’ ambition. Glitchy electronic effects drown out O’Brien’s established catchy melody around minute six, when we’re met by a crunchy, dancey guitar solo that overpowers all other sounds and escalates with them into chaos. After a brief moment of silence there is a complete sonic shift and suddenly we’re in a Green Day song, with distorted powercords and a pop-punk style outro of O’Brien screaming on loop, “they’re fucking up my favorite dream.” This song has so many exciting new elements and welcome surprises, boding well for the possibility that O’Brien is going to continue expanding his genre and sound reach.
Mixed and mastered by David Wrench, known for his work with Frank Ocean, FKA Twigs, and the xx, this album is satisfyingly clean and pleasantly ethereal in its production. Towards the end of the LP, a slower track “Full Faith in Providence,” sounds like Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst is being featured on a Julia Holter song. Eerie and dissonant sequenced vocals from Dublin-based Racheal Lavelle toss unsettlingly around the track against O’Brien’s own strained voice, and transform into a jubilant, hopeful choral finale; Providence goes from sounding a bit scary, to sounding like total salvation.
If there was one weakness, this album can at times feel overwhelming, as though O’Brien transformed every emotion he felt into a sound and spared none of it, allowing each to become another part of a fantastical dream. However, every dark road this album takes you down eventually turns into a joyous celebration. O’Brien said of this album, “sometimes the most delirious states can produce the most ecstatic, euphoric and escapist dreams.” Dreams can be scary and mysterious, but they are also ambivalent and fantastical and Fever Dreams walks this line exceptionally well.