Words: George Mcmillan
Villagers’ 2010 debut ‘Becoming A Jackal’ came out at a time where acoustic guitar music was in vogue and the charts were flooded with the likes of Mumford and Sons, Ed Sheeran and Ben Howard. Eight years on, singer-songwriter Conor O’Brien has proved he’s not a one-trick pony, capable of making more than just dainty guitar music. ‘The Art Of Pretending To Swim’ is the band’s most ambitious record to date.
The album echoes many elements of that Mercury Prize-nominated debut, but with added elements of maturity, assertiveness and style. O’Brien’s lyrics are emotional, honest and self-reflecting. On ‘A Trick of the Light’, the Irishman sings, “There’s an ocean in my body / And there’s a river in my soul / And I’m crying.” Compared to the album’s predecessors, there is clear progression here. Use of electronic drums and synths – although initially not glaringly obvious – take them in a new direction. Tracks such as ‘Love Came With All That It Brings’ show O’Brien to not only be a highly skilled and tasteful musician, but a talented producer too.
Listeners may be surprised at some points where songs almost seem to take on influence from dance tracks. Four-to-the-floor beats, repeated phrases and heady synth lines feature throughout, but in some tracks become the focal point. This is most notable in opener ‘Again’ and on ‘Real Go-Getter’, which transition into entirely different songs at their conclusions. In both cases, the transitions are understated.
The album’s not always so subtle. ‘Long Time Waiting’ has a promising start – it’s laced with the record’s trademark tight drums and stylish harmonies – but the 90-second mark heralds the unwelcome arrival of a jarring synth sound comparable to the bleeping noise Super Mario makes when he jumps. Still, Villagers fans will no doubt love this record, which has the capacity to obtain a new fanbase with O’Brien’s newly found sound.