Heartfelt reimagination

Irish band Villagers draw inspiration from their first two albums for their latest release

It may be news to some, but as art aficionados know, there are four versions of The Scream by Norwegian expressionist painter Edvard Munch - in oil, tempera, crayon and pastel. These exclude dozens of lithograph prints circulating in the art world.

So, which one is considered definitive, you ask? Or none is, and everyone of them is merely a refraction of the universal psychological trauma the artist is addressing.

I thought of this conundrum as I listened to Where Have You Been All My Life?, the fourth album by Irish band Villagers, formed by Conor O'Brien i n 2008.

Recorded in a day at RAK Studio in London, it is pitched as a reimagination of tracks from their first two Mercury Prize-nominated albums, Becoming A Jackal (2010) and Awayland (2013) as well as last year's stripped-down Darling Arithmetic.

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    WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN ALL MY LIFE?Villagers

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Listening to it now, I feel a pang of guilt as my heart leans towards some of these newer versions which are often first or second takes.

Does one have to choose? Alas, choice, serendipitous or not, guides this beauteous curation and, by extension, everyone's lives.

"True love feeds on absences like a pleasure feeds on pain," he sings on the opener Set The Tigers Free, a track from Jackal. The words are the same, but something has changed five years later.

Factors such as ageing or the revelation that O'Brien has publicly come out of the closet last year may account for the more pensive, introspective atmosphere.

The original is slightly more upbeat and jazzier, with its sprinkling of piano keys and a vocal finish on a high. The latest version is longer by a minute and feels truer, as if unburdened.

A sustained note of a mellotron infuses, as he ends the farewell letter with a bittersweet finality: "I see you've written promises to make me stay/But really doesn't mattter now anyway/I'm leaving."

Hot Scary Summer, already a gem from last year's Arithmetic, remains heartstoppingly candid. Gone is the sample of seagulls shrieking in the background and you're right there with him, in the studio, as he sings his heart out.

"We got good at pretending, but pretending got us good," his voice nearly cracks, buffered by the buttery guitars and the rise of a mellotron note over the horizon.

The song, My Lighthouse, is also transformed from its surreal original. Stripped of background harmonising, he stands alone, raising his cup to a kindred spirit: "I will heed your call from the dust and the sand/And I'll save my stories for thee."

The lighthouse metaphor pops up again in Memoir, an intriguing song about fluid identities he wrote for actress and singer Charlotte Gainsbourg. It's a zippy, double bass-plucked missive, as he bares his heart, confessing: "You were the lighthouse to my broken boat."

Such is his constant negotiation with the self and co-dependency.

"Where have you been all my life?" he asks in The Soul Serene, invoking the title of this album. Is the ode addressed to himself or to a lover?

The answer hangs in the air. A track originally from Arithmetic, it's now a minute longer, ending on a magical soprano flourish, his voice repeating the line as it enters the ether.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 20, 2016, with the headline 'Heartfelt reimagination'. Print Edition | Subscribe