Are we going to wake up tomorrow and realise that Villagers, in that classic cliché of ‘will-this-do?’ storytelling, were all a dream? After all, Conor O’Brien, long a proponent of gauzy, hallucinogenic folk and a fan of Lynch and Lowry, has gone full Bobby-in-Dallas on his sixth album. It opens with an intro piece seemingly recorded on warped antique vinyl, O’Brien tracing out “the sense of something bigger than you” over Wizard Of Oz choirs, then bursts into Tame Impala technicolour come spectral soul party ‘The First Day’.
From there, the record swims with otherworldly strings like melted memories, music box melodies like childhood flashbacks, ambient atmospherics like subconscious traumas and glitchy lounge moods like a fractured vision of golden-era Burt Bacharach. If there were songs about doing exams naked, it couldn’t be more suited to its title.
The fever dream in question, though, is the stress nightmare of the modern world. If ‘The First Day’ gives the initial impression that this will be a blissful trip – “Feels like falling on love on the first day of the rest of your life,” O’Brien croons over retro Jungle beats, ‘70s block party horns and xylophone twinkles – daily fears soon seep into the reverie. ‘Song In Seven’ follows O’Brien and a soul choir – recruited, by the sounds of it, in Las Vegas in 1967 – “to the brink of the warm North Sea”. ‘Circles In The Firing Line’ feels plagued by the horrors of Trumpism, O’Brien declaring “the united state of demagogic logic awaits” and joking, “I’m late – I’ve got a date with doom… They’re fucking up my favourite dream”. At times you want to will yourself out of the album in a cold sweat.
O’Brien keeps us under with rich, sophisticated soul vibes, oceanic piano, languid sax solos and an overlying tone of optimism. ‘So Simpatico’ and ‘Circles…’ swing by on mesmerising hooklines – the latter bursting into garage punk for the closing seconds – while ‘Restless Endeavour’ emulates an ambient house Sunday session invaded by a demented saxophonist still raving from the night before.
O’Brien’s mastery of hallucinatory textures, akin to a folk-soul Kevin Parker, provides further immersion; the ghost-shaped title track culminates in a spoken-word section about seeing angels during meditation and a swirl of voices repeating “the more I know, the more I care” like a Ulysses audiobook. With the real world waiting, you won’t want to wake up.
Release date: August 20
Record label: Domino Recording Co.