If Villagers’ 2010 debut Becoming a Jackal was the occasionally naïve but unquestionably brilliant introduction to the talents of one Conor O’Brien, then 2013 follow up Awayland was the assured confirmation of a new and exciting voice in Irish indie-folk.
On this third outing, the moments of pop melodrama that have characterised the Dublin artist’s work to date – collisions of amplified guitar, keys and electronica, gradual build-ups of soaring strings and grand crashing climaxes – are gone, at least for now. Instead, pared-down arrangements place O’Brien’s exceptional songwriting at the forefront of each track. His voice and words, a paradoxical mix of worldly weariness and childlike delivery, still present and as enduring and endearing as ever.
Hot Scary Summer’s ‘remember kissing on the cobblestones / in the heat of the night / and all the pretty young homophobes / looking out for a fight’ is the greatest example of O’Brien’s distinct talent for turning simplistic lyrics into enchanting and powerful pieces of prose.
Arrangements are darker and more seasoned this time around, unsurprising perhaps, as each instrument on the album was written, played, recorded and produced by O’Brien at his home in Malahide, north of Dublin. Beyond the inky and claustrophobic beauty of songs such as Everything I Am Is Yours, title track Darling Arithmetic and No One To Blame, lie the gentle bass, drums, cello and layered vocals of The Soul Serene and the album’s one stylistic exception in Little Bigot.
In contrast to the opening line of ‘I took a little time to get where I wanted / I took a little time to get free’ on first track Courage, O’Brien sings ‘how did I get here? / Am I ever gonna get back?’ on ethereal closing track So Naïve. Wherever he is, on the strength of Darling Arithmetic, it’s a journey worth taking.