Villagers – ‘Darling Arithmetic’ album review

Villagers new album

Conor O’Brien and his Villagers project has long been a favourite with us here at Spectral Nights. From his debut appearance on Jools Holland performing a solo rendition of ‘Becoming a Jackal’ to the album of the same name and then the more experimental tints of second full-length ‘{Awayland}’, we’ve always found him one of the most inspiring singer-songwriters about. Now after two Mercury Award nominations, supports slots with Elbow, a number of festival appearances at the likes of Glastonbury and Reading and many other accolades, we’re excited to hear the third Villagers album ‘Darling Arithmetic’; a record that promises to see Conor open his heart and let us hear his deepest and innermost thoughts and feelings…

‘Courage’ is the fitting name for the first song – and it’s a theme that Conor returns to time and time again through the all-too-short nine-song running time. Avoiding the usual Villagers metaphors and very sparse in its instrumentation, Conor sings how: ‘It took a little time to be honest, it took a little time to be me’ while also offering further insights into his private life – especially when it comes to relationship breakdowns: ‘From time to time I get heavy hearted thinking about how we used to kiss’. Feeling like he’s bearing his soul more than ever before, there’s also the passionate line: ‘Courage, it’s a feeling like no other’. Following this up is ‘Every Thing I am is Yours’, a song which recalls the fervour of the debut Villagers album as Conor sings about giving himself up to a loved one and how he has: ‘Got these little walls, couldn’t break them if I tried…’

There’s also a touch of of ‘Becoming a Jackal’s ’27 Strangers’ in ‘Darling Arithmetic’ centrepiece ‘Hot Scary Summer’ – a song which gives Conor the chance to pour out his heart about love, loss and sexuality: ‘Remember kissing on the cobblestones in the heat of the night, and all the pretty young homophobes looking out for a fight’. Following this memorable line with talk of: ‘How we got good at pretending and pretending got us good’ and how a relationship ‘shouldn’t be hard work, least not the kind the makes us half a person, half a monster in this hot scary summer’, it shows Conor at his most intimate and candid. He played every instrument on every track and sincerity runs through the album, even when he touches upon subjects that really shouldn’t be issues in 2015. ‘Little Bigot’ deals with homophobia and prejudice in all its forms. Conor may be angry but his voice is so fragile and dignified that you can feel the pride bursting out when he states: ‘Love is all, love is real, love is true, love is all, love is me, love is you’ and then the satisfaction that can’t help but seep through when he sings: ‘You’re about to expire’ and his definitive statement to the bigots of: ‘Throw that hatred on the fire’ as the quirky guitars are turned up just a little more.

‘No one to Blame’ finds Conor looking back on past mistakes in self-depreciating fashion, comparing himself to a ‘broken shell’ while the closing ‘So Naïve’ with its picked guitar and atmospheric keyboards not only has a fuller ‘band’ sound in the vein of Midlake or John Grant, but also touches on grander topics: ‘I believe I’m part of something bigger’; ‘How did I get here? Am I ever gonna get back?’… Not all the album is as deep as this, recent single ‘The Soul Serene’ is a bass-lead track that finds Conor talking about his feelings and has the visceral lyrics of how he: ‘Took a little ride on the carousel… When will it end? I can never tell’ amidst some subtle but swirling psychedelia that recalls The Antlers at their most emotive. As Conor sings: ‘So I go walking on the shore and wonder what I’m walking for’, it’s the kind of thought we all have when we want to clear our heads.

An album that Conor O’Brien had to write – reminiscent of Ryan Adams’ ‘Love is Hell’ or Frightened Rabbit’s ‘Midnight Organ Fight’ in its frankness, candour and importance – ‘Darling Arithmetic’ is a record with real heart and hope shining through. Passionate, genuine and sure to be near the top of the critics’ (and our!) lists at the end of the year, the restrained, unpretentious and minimalist nature of the music gives Conor the chance to give real worth to the words he’s saying – and they’re ones you should really be listening to…

Darling Arithmetic‘ is released via Domino Records on 13 April 2015.

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