Villagers – ‘Where Have You Been All My Life?’ album review

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For the past six years, Conor O’Brien has delivered some truly breathtaking music in his Villagers guise. From the folkier, Paul Simon-esque output that announced his arrival on ‘Becoming a Jackal’ to the more ambient, electronica-tinged moments of ‘{Awayland}’ and then last year’s personal and reflective ‘Darling Arithmetic’, Conor and his band have proven to be one of Ireland’s best musical exports of recent times. While promoting ‘Darling Arithmetic’, Conor not only showcased an impressive new beard but also new versions of the old favourites so that they complemented ‘Darling Arithmetic’s more pared-down sound. The shows went down so well that we now have ‘Where Have You Been All My Life?’, a compilation album recorded in one day that gives fans old and new the chance to return to these alternate versions time and time again.

All first or second takes, the album starts in style with early song ‘Set the Tigers Free’ being stripped back to its core. It’s highly atmospheric and with space to breathe, there’s even more emphasis on Conor’ voice as he lays his heart out bare. Some of the harmonies are not only breathtaking but also heartbreaking, especially when the words ‘Pleasure feeds on pain’ are sung in unison. Unsurprisingly, songs from ‘Darling Arithmetic’ – an album which was recorded by Conor on his own – do not undertake too much of a reimagining. ‘Everything I Am is Yours’ has a little more emphasis put on Cormac Curran’s gorgeous grand piano to add extra splendour and picks up the pace, while ‘The Soul Serene’ sees the double bass driving the song along with extra verve and ‘Courage’ has Mali Llewellyn’s beautiful harp more prominently at its heart.

‘That Day’ was a ‘hit’ (whatever that word means these days) when it was released at the tail-end of 2010 and in its new guise, it’s soaked in stirring atmospherics as Conor delivers, in spoken-word form, the song’s key message: ‘Can you hear me now?’ Slowed down so that the music almost has a touch of Wilko, Conor continues to talk rather than sing until he stretches his vocal chords to add extra emotion to the words ‘No, no, no’. Although Villagers have always had storytelling qualities in abundance, this more narrative style makes it particularly affecting. There’s even a nod towards jazz as the song takes a full minute to reach its climax. Written for Charlotte Gainsbourg back in 2011, ‘Memoir’ appears here for the first time as a recorded Villagers song. Kicked off by the double bass, it will be very familiar to anyone who has seen the band’s live performances over the past few years. Quite macabre, it captures the essence of Nick Cave as Conor sings about sex and death in candid detail: ‘I give myself to strangers like I gave myself to you’ and ‘Take my body, it’s not worthy’.

When it was released as a single, ‘The Waves’ surprised quite a few as it represented a very different sound to what had come on Villagers’ debut album. Here, it’s presented with a more traditional indie-folk sound – but that does not mean it’s any less powerful. The dramatic introduction is full of swagger and almost feels like it could have been a Dry the River song before it cuts everything back to let Conor sing about the waves and what they mean to him. Instead of bleeps bedding underneath his vocals, it’s now acoustic instruments as the song moves along at speed to an intense finish full of screams. Clocking in at seven minutes, it’s a behemoth of a song that captures the spirit of Villagers’ live show.

The album finishes with a cover of the Jimmy Webb/Glen Campbell classic, ‘Wichita Lineman’. It takes away the grandiose strings and replaces them with a more delicate sound but it’s all done with so much respect and it’s a fitting finale for the album to sign off. Definitely a record for the fans, ‘Where Have You Been All My Life?’ is a wonderful album full of different versions of songs we’ve grown to love. Let’s hope we hear more new Villagers material soon.

Villagers’ ‘Where Have You Been All My Life?’ is released on 8 January via Domino Records.

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