“I’ve found, a space in my heart again, for God, in the form of art again,” both opens and announces Connor O’Brien’s revitalisation on Villagers’ fourth LP The Art Of Pretending To Swim. Expanding on the orchestral and electronic indie-folk tapestry which has come to define the project, O’Brien pushes thematically deeper with his lyricism. Via moments of glitchy distortion, the velvet curtain of these whimsical melodies frays to reveal the deeper darkness underlying his art and his acceptance of being wrangled to it.
Through 2010’s Becoming a Jackal, O’Brien garnered widespread praise for his eeriness, balancing on a knife’s edge between sorrow and sweetness. With 2015’s sublime Darling Arithmetic, the Irishman managed to curtail esoteric themes for clear and concise lyricism. Though the final third feels cloudy with subtext and over-ambition, some pointed storytelling ensures Villagers aren’t merely going through the motions fourth time round.
The detuned backing sample of “Again” lingers like a devil on the shoulder with the album opener of the same name. It mirrors O’Brien being sucked back into his art, his life’s work beckoning relentlessly. Twinkling keys and arpeggiated synths give a watery aesthetic to the “ripples” the raconteur sings of over a characteristic Villagers major-minor progression in the chorus. Importantly, the synthy swell in the back half shines brightest, showing O’Brien isn’t averse to having fun whilst handcuffed to his cause. This resignation to fate continues with lead single “A Trick of the Light” – “it’s time I let go of things I can’t control, this path I take is the only one I know”. This dreamier number uses violins to heighten the ethereal nature as O’Brien similarly submits himself to his rediscovery of God – “what can I say I’m a man of the faith”.
An economical arrangement on “Sweet Saviour” shows he’s a master of minimalism. A hauntingly tense backing vocal combines with an acoustic strum before resolving irresistibly with syncopated keys and a catchy chorus hook. Underneath the literary lyricism, “ballooning woven tapestry of transcendental memory,” is the sentiment of being left in the lurch after giving everything to a failed relationship. “Long Time Waiting” is further evidence of O’Brien’s diversity, offering an alt percussive groove, keys and trumpets evocative of Radiohead’s back catalogue. A chaotic VCO synth solo toward the end imbues the forlorn tale of inaction with a colour that’s long been missing from prior Villagers records.
The blissful “Fool” offers a deceptive mood shift with a catchy chorus making it the hookiest track on the album. But it’s the dark subtext regarding social media’s numbing affliction on humanity that reveals the artistic integrity of O’Brien; “I’m lookin’ at my screen, failing to accept there’s a problem to be seen”. As the candy-rainbow filled soundscape begins to crackle with white noise, the poignancy of the metaphor is revealed; what are our lives left with when this technological crutch is removed from our lives?
“Love Came With All That It Brings” is the pick of the bunch on The Art Of Pretending To Swim. Another simple percussive backbeat underpins a Sohn-like combo of unrelenting piano and a sampled vocal. Detailing the pain following a break-up, O’Brien doesn’t shy away from laying it bare; “including the fact that it stings, like a motherfucker”. The climactic wind section, prefaced by a nice melody roll, releases pleasantly in lieu with the analysis that “just as the fat lady sings, we want more”.
Relative to the deeper themes of earlier tracks, the simplicity of the uplifting lyrics in “Real Go-Getter” are difficult to digest; “give all you got and if you’re feeling like you’ve had enough, there’s only one way and its always up”. Strings and a pounding kick add tension before glitches cut the song up entirely. “Hold Me Down” is better, albeit overambitious. The combination of white noise and unplugging jacks signpost transitions through different soundscapes ranging from the grounded xylophone and boxed-in vocals to the ethereal violin flutters. The traversal through the realms of imagination work well, but the abandonment of rhythm in parts leaves the track disjointed.
Closer “Ada” finishes things with a tribute to 19th century mathematician and computer programmer Ada Lovelace. Being the longest track on the record, O’Brien attempts to capture the grandiosity of her legacy and achievements with keys that build into another climactic wind section. The subtle air of foreboding, however, reaffirms O’Brien’s pensive attitude toward our over-reliance on technology,
Villagers’ fourth outing manages to build on the concise storytelling of Darling Arithmetic whilst expanding their acoustic alt-folk soundscape. Hooks are few and far between, but the lyricism and arrangements show an artist at the height of his powers. Though the back third falls a little flat, it’s a body of work that’s equal parts arresting, uplifting and contemplative. Utilising their whimsical aesthetic as a cover to revealing a corrosive reality beneath makes this the most compelling of Villagers’ eerie catalogue.
The Art Of Pretending To Swim is released Friday 21st September via Domino Recording Company.