Villagers' Conor O'Brien could easily have become a victim of his own success. The songwriter's first two albums – 'Becoming a Jackal', and its heir 'Awayland' – both assembled a wealth of critical approval, each rewarded with Mercury Award nominations and the accompanying mainstream acceptance that this brings.
Tackling compulsion, devotion and unrequited ardour, the crushing stories the Irish vocalist told were held a dark fascination. 'Darling Arithmetic', too, harbours nine tracks fixated on deeply personal matters, nine further signs of his gradual evolution.
Opening tracks 'Courage' and 'Everything I Am Is Yours' directly recall his debut's allure. 'Courage' is O'Brien's ode to self-renewal; flitting loosely between the realms of reality-bitten defeat and the sweet relief of escapism.
'Everything I Am Is Yours' harks back to 'Set the Tigers Free' from 'Becoming A Jackal', such is the track's off-beat colour and raining piano. It manages to re-create the raw, home made spirit of the inaugural album, but with a wish to expand.
'Dawning On Me' finds O'Brien's song construction at its most natural, sitting him amongst esteemed company. At times akin to 'Let England Shake' era PJ Harvey, the track is bolstered by O'Brien's harrowing finger-picked guitar and delicate piano, while the vocals have a renewed sense of daring: a habit that follows through on 'No One To Blame' – its opening piano passage faintly resembling a jubilant take on Blur's 'Under the Westway' – and the autumn-touched 'The Soul Serene'.
The title track is lyrically O'Brien's most challenging: "Boxed up your clothes, cleaned out your room, lay in your bed, flew to the moon," goes the song's main refrain, hinting at a relationship gone sour. The vocal continues to meander celestially: "the lenders say, what they always say, they only serve a soft reminder that you are dead, my darling".
Villagers' third album still garners bursts of sanguine ambience. On 'Little Bigot', brittle acoustics allow for a quickened groove, and the magnetic attraction of O'Brien's lyrics produces the album's first real sun-drenched moment.
There's affinity being built here between artist and listener, which - as ever with Villagers – remains as honest as it is unsettling. 'Darling Arithmetic' finds O'Brien continuing to fashion his sound in this cherished manner, the tales he spawns both introspective and impressive.
Words: Clive K Hammond
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