Right from the outset it is clear that this debut album from Villagers
(recent Domino signing, and nom de plume of Irish singer-songwriter Conor J Oâ€™Brien
) is going to be something both arresting and slightly disturbing.Â â€œHave you got just a minute?
â€, Oâ€™Brien croons at the albumâ€™s opening (on â€˜I Saw The Deadâ€™) â€œAre you easily led?
â€, he continues, before offering to â€œshow you the back room / where I saw the dead
â€.Â All this backed by a rolling piano melody and a subtly portentous air that would be frankly a little upsetting were it not for the beauty in the vocal that was delivering the lines.Once itâ€™s got your attention, this music very rarely lets it go again.Â Many more dark moments follow â€“ from the title track (and current/forthcoming single)â€™s tales of jackals who â€œpreyed on every soul / where they tied you to a pole / And stripped you of your clothes
â€; to the grim(m) fairytales of â€˜Ship of Promisesâ€™ (a mask appearing at night outside a window), â€˜Homeâ€™, set in â€œthe nightâ€™s synthetic half-light
â€ and the positively feral culmination of â€˜Piecesâ€™, which sees someone howling like a wolf (or jackal?) towards the end.This is augmented and made perhaps more unsettling by the curiously old-fashioned and frequently lovely musical setting and vocal delivery in which it is all set.Â â€˜Becoming a Jackalâ€™ sounds like a 1960s folk song (perhaps something by Simon and Garfunkel, say), while â€™Piecesâ€™ sounds more of the 1950s, somewhere between a crooned ballad and a doo-wop number.Â The tunes, though simple, are often show-stoppingly effective and
affecting: â€˜That Dayâ€™ in particular is almost inexplicably dramatic and rousing.The other dimension to Villagersâ€™ music â€“ indeed perhaps the key one â€“ is its lyricism.Â Oâ€™Brien has a poetic and distinctive way with words, and is particularly good at producing neat rhymes that create a beautiful sense of pace in his songs.Â In â€˜Set The Tigers Freeâ€™, for example, the lines â€œI see youâ€™ve written promises to make me stay / But it really doesnâ€™t matter now anyway
â€ manage to sound uncontrived yet still rhyme and fit perfectly with the rhythm of the music. The same thing is achieved in â€˜The Meaning of the Ritualâ€™ with â€œThe meaning of a ritual, so habitual and cursed
â€, and the lovely, profound couplet â€œIâ€™ll meet you in between / What I say and what I mean
â€ (â€˜Ship of Promisesâ€™).Â Only on the closing track â€˜To Be Counted Among Menâ€™ is a bum (lyrical) note struck, with a sequence of rhymes that perhaps are only noticeable as contrived and forced-sounding because of the quality of what has come before.Â The lines â€œHe asked her name, she told him â€˜Loriâ€™ / Proceeded to give him her life storyâ€
, and the pairing of â€œAthens
â€ with â€œhappened
â€ simply jar, and are surprising coming from a wordsmith who has so clearly demonstrated his talent elsewhere.There are many highlights on this really quite special album.Â For me the best tracks were â€˜I Saw The Deadâ€™ (one of the best album openers I can remember in a long while), â€˜Becoming a Jackalâ€™ (a great single choice), the slow, thoughtful â€˜The Meaning of The Ritualâ€™ with its magnificently delivered unusual take on love in all its complexity, â€˜That Dayâ€™ and â€˜The Pact (Iâ€™ll Be Your Forever)â€™.Â Really, though, the entire album is a marvellous showcase for Oâ€™Brien: not only his voice and his way with a tune, but also the way he weaves together words and images in a way that willÂ simultaneously please and â€“ yes â€“ slightly frighten the listener.Â Itâ€™s a pay-off that is certainly worth it, for an album that undoubtedly deserves to be heard and relished.