Liberated album that is about surviving and grace





4 stars

In his early days, when the Dublin band Villagers made a splash with their Mercury Prize-nominated album Becoming A Jackal in 2010, frontman Conor O'Brien (right) was often compared with Conor Oberst of the Nebraskan outfit Bright Eyes.

The first name aside, the two share an admirable restlessness in exploring musical genres, flipping and melding, creating their own along the way. These two acts are ostensibly folk, or alternative folk, but the epithet feels somewhat insufficient.

Villagers' fourth studio album, The Art Of Pretending To Swim, proves how true that impression is and how far O'Brien has sojourned.

"I've found it again (Again)/A space in my heart again (Again)," he sings in the breezy opener Again, over mellifluous guitar, piano and drums. Just as you are going to peg it as a folksy number, it blooms into a psychedelic shindig. Synths percolate, braiding with bird chirping.

Whereas Villagers' last album, Darling Arithmetic (2015), was a defiantly moving affair as O'Brien wrestles with his sexuality, Pretending To Swim is about "survival and grace". As he explains in an interview: "(In life) you're not drowning, but you're not exactly swimming either; you're making it all up as you go along. It's a blind faith."

As a whole, the album feels liberated. The horizon has opened up and he is unafraid, come what may. In A Trick Of The Light, he's found inner peace: "What can I say? I'm a man of the faith/And there's an ocean in my body/And there's a river in my soul."

The music, too, has the effortless sway of someone who is willing to go with the flow. There is a groove in his step as he ventures into R&B and dips into soul, as synths rise like sunrise.

Such is the case with the gently funky ballad Sweet Saviour, where both the secular and spiritual align and you are buoyed along by his ardour. "Never did a soul touch your body so divine/And never did a heartbeat so fast eclipse mine," he sings as the drums mimic the scuttling heart.

This is counter-pointed by Long Time Waiting, a taut and thoughtful exposition on procrastination. "You can't sit back when you're taking a stand," he exhorts over an insistent piano hook and an airy, haunting synth circling above.

"I don't need no validation/From anyone at any cost/A trophy consolation," he realises.

With the enlightenment come self-determination and a sense of mischief.

Real Go-Getter is an inner tug-of-war that belies his newfound confidence. "Things have got better I'm a real go-getter," he chants, as if to remind himself. The song enters uncharted territory, a dusting of electronic blips and squelches laid over ebullient percussion and an intricate layering of vocals, switching between high and low registers.

Quietly, O'Brien has travelled and imbibed, older and wiser, yet amazingly younger in spirit.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 27, 2018, with the headline 'Liberated album that is about surviving and grace'. Print Edition | Subscribe