Former (twice) Mercury Prize candidate & homeland chart topper, Villagers, return with their fourth release, ‘The Art of Pretending to Swim‘, marking a swing back towards experimentation with electronica & textures first seen on their second album, ‘Awayland‘, after the stripped back acoustic approach returned to their original folk roots on their last full length LP, ‘Darling Arithmetic‘.
Villagers is the Irish indie folk project of Conor O’Brien formed in 2008. They first came to my attention with the release of the astounding single, ‘Becoming a Jackal‘, in 2009 which projected a precious & folky charm delivered tenderly as well as a real talent for narrative songwriting drawing well deserved comparisons to Bright Eyes & Elliot Smith.
This was followed by a trio of solid albums where Conor experimented with different styles from the more orchestral full band debut to the electronic infused second album before returning to a bare bones acoustic third album, retaining his folklore roots & distinct sound throughout. What has always remained crystal clear has been the real top notch craftsmanship of Conor’s lyrics & his fragile emotional delivery.
‘The Art of Pretending to Swim‘ is no different in that sense as intricate & tender acoustic sounds are now complemented by melodic synths & sumptuous warm bass. The first track, ‘Again‘, demonstrates this in abundance as delicate finger picking & singing is met by a repetitive electronic vocal, gentle drumming & waves of smooth bass making the track seem like it would not be out of place on an album by the likes of James Blake or Jamie XX. It really is a gorgeous track which stands alongside his best work & is certainly the album’s highlight.
This strong start continues into the lead single, ‘A Trick of the Light‘, which is a bit more conventional but still benefits from lovely warm textures & a catchy chorus as Conor visits what becomes a recurring theme on the album, faith, as he sings “And if I see a sign in the sky tonight, No one’s gonna tell me it’s a trick of the light, May never come but I’m willing to wait, What can I say? I’m a man of the faith”. It is a sleek & well produced number with lyrics which just seem to roll naturally off the tongue.
The theme of faith & religion is continued on ‘Sweet Saviour‘ which feels subtle & mournful albeit I find the first half of the track a little dull before it bursts into emotion around the halfway mark as Conor pleads not to be mistreated by a higher power after dedicated worship. In contrast, ‘Long Time Waiting‘ begins in a stronger fashion with a skittering drum pattern & repeating piano notes before random strikes of squiggly electronic synth gradually takeover & are later joined by brass which undesirably consumes the track. This doesn’t quite work largely due to the unpleasant mix of electronic squeals which oddly (and not in a good way) remind me of Aphex Twin’s ‘Funny Little Man‘.
Despite this, I do think the exploration of electronica does work by and large. The track, ‘Real Go-Getter‘, feels like it should be sung in a hot air balloon as it soars through the clouds whilst ‘Love Came with All That It Brings‘ sees wistful singing give way to an unforeseen dreamy breakdown before reaching a crescendo as it marks itself as another of the album’s standouts.
Being a bit harsh, I do feel like the album largely ends after ‘Real Go-Getter‘ with neither of the following two tracks offering much in the way of anything of particular note as I didn’t find myself paying much attention to these after multiple plays. However this is only a minor blot in what is an excellent fourth album.
Overall, there is plenty to love here – well crafted lyrics, sensitive vocals, lush production & a nice variety of song structures & instrumentation. This combines to form a fine album where Villagers have managed to demonstrate a largely comforting relationship between analogue & digital whilst again retaining their trademark intimacy & damn good folky song writing.
Review by Scott Bingham (Follow him on Twitter at @in_the_riot)
Art of Pretending to Swim was released on the 21st September 2018 and is available from all good record stores and on Spotify.
You can catch them live at the following dates in October,
17 Oct – Nottingham, UK – The Rescue Rooms
18 Oct – Glasgow, UK – The Garage
19 Oct – Manchester, UK – Gorilla
21 Oct – Leeds, UK – Wardrobe
22 Oct – Oxford, UK – O2 Academy 2
23 Oct – London, UK – Hackney Arts Centre
25 Oct – Liverpool, UK – Arts Club – Loft
27 Oct – Dublin, IE – Metropolis Festival
30 Oct – Bristol, UK – Trinity Centre
31 Oct – Brighton, UK – The Old Market
For full listings and additional UK dates in 2019 see https://www.wearevillagers.com/