Music review: Villagers' Conor O'Brien comes to terms with his sexual identity

Conor O’Brien.
Conor O’Brien.

To see Villagers' frontman Conor O'Brien at the Esplanade Recital Studio in 2011 was startling - not because he was worlds apart from the deferential personality you had imagined him to be, but because the Irishman was incredibly pint-sized.

He looked like a teenager, playing a guitar which was proportionately smaller than the usual. Yet what gorgeous songs rang out from his mouth, hinting at darkness beneath a gauze of surrealism.

These are songs about becoming a jackal and setting the tigers free and you wonder what they mean.

Which is also why listening to the band's third album, Darling Arithmetic, is another startling experience - for entirely different reasons. Whereas the first two albums, Becoming A Jackal and (Awayland) - both nominated for the illustrious Mercury Prize - are meticulously textured, their latest is stripped-back. There is nowhere to hide.

Recorded mostly at home as demos, they are much more personal statements, even though the rest of the gang - Tommy McLaughlin, Danny Snow, James Byrne and Cormac Curran - flesh out the songs live.

O'Brien, who is in his 30s, is coming to terms with his sexual identity, and unloading the baggage he bears his whole life. You almost hear the sigh of relief in the way he speaks plainly.

Nowhere To Blame, for instance, is an anti-ballad about the politics of the gaze. He sings about facing someone you fancy and having his heart broken: "See there's a mystery in your eyes/A kind of swimming pool, swimming fools like me." The organ murmurs in the background, church-like.

Hot Scary Summer is the emotional fulcrum of this set. He recalls a past relationship, as if it is a scene from a Derek Jarman film: "Remembering kissing in the cobblestones/In the heat of the night/And all the pretty young homophobes/Lookin' out for a fight."

His delivery is harder, made all the more powerful by restraint.

Little Bigot is a jeremiad against homophobia, armed with a tensely plucked guitar riff and a softly insistent piano plonk as he exhorts for peace: "We're the same/And it's okay, to be tired/So take the blame, little bigot/And throw that hatred on the fire."

The feelings are unvarnished, although he sounds neither jaded nor embittered. It is a young man trying to reach out even as he flagellates.

The Soul Serene is a dreamy lullaby, likely addressed to his old self. "Where have you been," he asks in a perambulatory track shaded by electric fuzz.

Self-deprecation - a rare quality these days - underlines his quiet ambition.

Courage, the opening track, says it as it is. "It took a little time to get free/It took a little time to be honest/It took a little time to be me," he sings softly against a comfortable waltz beat, then delivers the title "courage" slightly louder - as if it is a strange, alien emotion.

So Naive, the closing track, may well be his guiding principle for life. "I believe I'm part of something bigger/So naive, but I guess I've got it figured," he sings, no, almost whispers, in possibly the world's humblest anthem of self-empowerment.

The guitar is barely discernible. A synth line floats in the air. And you smile.