Album Review: Villagers – Darling Arithmetic

1 Villagers bbc.co.uk

Hirsute high notes: Villagers’ Conor O’Brien (photo: bbc.co.uk)

Villagers

Darling Arithmetic (Domino)

1 Darling ArithmeticConor O’Brien is a songwriter of intriguingly distinct crispness. Three albums into his career under the Villagers title, everything he has released thus far revels in clarity and precision. Every sandy strum, every piano curlicue, even every syllable lands with a refined delicacy; his bewitchingly soft vocals given the space to weave their own little worlds amid the folk-rock backdrops. All elements combine to form a smooth, clean sound which can occasionally seem a little too well-varnished.

2013’s {Awayland} has proved to be his most multidimensional work so far, and it’s a veritable box of tricks when compared to Darling Arithmetic, which boils his musical flavours back down to the twangy balladry of Becoming a Jackal. That album’s literary sweep and Ivor Novello-bothering mysteries are here replaced by more reflective, personal ruminations on – in the plain words of a tube advertisement – “love and relationships”. Based on previous evidence, one would imagine that O’Brien would scrub up well at exposing his own heartaches, utilising those well-clipped tones of his to great effect with minimal accompaniment. However, that clean, precise tendency of his wears a little thin across these nine songs, and only a handful of cuts pack the power that one would hope for.

Sweet and simple, opener ‘Courage’ wears its fragile heart on its sleeve, loping through O’Brien’s admissions of frailty and gradual self-recovery in a basic yet earnestly charming fashion. Unfortunately, following this introduction, there’s little to give the album any sense of propulsion, the gears staying resolutely low without a flourish or sense of adventure to whisk us away. O’Brien settles into his penchant for gentle balladry within the opening moments, and mires himself there for the remainder of the record. ‘Hot Scary Summer’ pulls through thanks to its melodically sharp chorus and a poignant bookending lyric, one that hones in on a moment of uncoupling with real tenderness. “So you thank me for my hard work / But you’ve had it up to there / Because this shouldn’t be hard work / But I’ll fight to care if you’d care to fight.” The callousness, hurt, and regret experienced somehow linger on in these lines, and it’s a shame that such alchemy isn’t echoed with similar success throughout Darling Arithmetic.

Instead, many of these songs seem content to flutter prettily without stepping into bolder terrain. ‘Everything I Am is Yours’ is over before it has the chance to take flight, fading out before O’Brien tosses in any of those twists that {Awayland} feels comparatively awash with. The likes of ‘Dawning on Me’ and ‘No One to Blame’ are dotted with pretty couplets, though lack the throbbing pulse required to bring them to life. It’s more than a little frustrating, because O’Brien’s recent personal history is clearly charged with intensity, but it’s rendered all too prettily here; these tracks seldom splintering into something tangibly raw.

The album’s one real diversion, ‘Little Bigot’ is the standout by a country mile, its slippery melodies invading the genteel landscape like a theatrical fever dream. Although still well-polished, O’Brien doses his compositions with a mischievous bite, demonstrating a flicker of fire in his belly as well as his way with a dexterous melody. Once it has passed, one can’t help but wonder why O’Brien abandons the shadows so readily elsewhere on Darling Arithmetic. As it stands, it’s in no way a bad album, but it is far too anodyne in its presentation to resonate beyond its fleeting moments of acuity. Plenty will find gifts in O’Brien’s crisp brand of songwriting, but fans of his more adventurous streak may find Darling Arithmetic a touch too formulaic to bore beneath the skin.

“There’s a mystery in your eyes / A kind of swimming pool / For swimming fools like me.”

26/04/15

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Posted on April 26, 2015, in The Music World and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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