It took the release of a third album, but we’re finally getting to know Conor O’Brien of Villagers. Darling Arithmetic is an intimate venture into a more subtle and personal setting for the Malahide artist, recorded and produced in the particular setting of his home, without the intent for any of these tracks to be heard by the public. In fact, O’Brien intended for this record to be fleshed out with more of a ‘band’ vibe, but after even one listen through the incredibly honest and raw lyrical content, we can safely say that this acoustic folk ambience adds a certain authenticity to the album.
‘Courage’ is a strong opener for the record, laying out on the table exactly what is to come. With an opening like “It took a little time to get where I wanted / It took a little time to get free”, we can safely assume that this record is Villagers’ most honest yet. Unapologetic and raw, ‘Courage’ begins with this address of subject and genre shift, before slowly and subtly transforming into a gorgeously simple yet universal love song. And gorgeous as it is, I can’t help but suspect that this, like others on the album, while lovely to listen to, are rather forgettable acoustic folk songs in an age where we can’t move for acoustic folk songs. While it’s definitely nice rainy-day-reading-a-book-and-maybe-feeling-a-little-bit-sorry-for-myself, it doesn’t actually ask a whole lot of the listener, but provides a background soundtrack to whatever may be happening, be that the romantic, the personal, or the mundane.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t gems on the album, well two gems, two songs ask a little bit more from us as participants – ‘Dawning on Me’ is more musically complex than anything else on the album (not to get carried away, this is still a very simple musical structure but just, less so?). Or perhaps it’s just a welcome break from the slow paced and serene tempo of everything so far (and after), and it’s nice to break it all up with something a little more up tempo, upbeat, and awake. Following this, tracks like ‘Hot Scary Summer’, ‘The Soul Serene’ and ‘Darling Arithmetic’ all seem to melt into one.
But finally! Alas! Hark! The finale of the record, ‘So Naïve’ almost saves everything that has come so far from being rather forgettable. The repetitive tonal choral structure is still there, (it’s pretty much one chord for the entire song), but gives way for aesthetic experiments with contrapuntal harmonies, a manipulated ambience which causes the acoustic space to grow and grow until the lyrics “I believe that I’m part of something bigger” makes you say, ‘Ahhh I see what he did there!’. ‘So Naïve’ showcases O’Brien’s musical, vocal, and lyrical talents more than anything we’ve heard from Villagers so far. It is existential, personal, universal, hopeful, and pensive all at once, and it’s just a pity that this wasn’t achieved until the final track on the album.
Darling Arithmetic is an enjoyable listen, and stands up on second, third, and fourth plays through. The issue seems to be that you might not remember how much you liked some of these songs in a year’s or a month’s time. It’s certainly a new sound, and one that Villagers fans will be excited to hear. But my advice to those not familiar with the artist: stick ‘So Naïve’ on a ‘rainy day acoustic’ playlist, and remind yourself to give it another listen again, though you would be forgiven for forgetting, and moving on to something else.
THREE OUT OF FIVE
Featured Image Credit: Andrew Whitton