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Villagers' Conor O'Brien reaches an astonishing new peak at the Barbican

04 May 2015, 12:00 | Written by Russell Warfield

After the ambition of 2013’s stunning Awayland, this year’s Darling Arithmetic is easy to hear as a somewhat slighter entry in the Villagers discography. Across nine songs recorded solely by Conor O'Brien, the structures are simpler, the melodies are mnemonic and the textures are thinner. But this apparent simplicity is simply a misreading of a more relaxed maturity. These songs are as layered and complex as ever.

As a lyricist, songwriter and performer, O'Brien is still on the way up, and tonight hits an astonishing new peak. His voice is captivating, his command of the guitar is beautiful, and tonight (1st May) his songs are as good as any we’ve heard at the Barbican in a decade.

Although the textures on Darling Arithmetic are more gentle and sparse, Villagers have never performed with such a filled out line up, including an upright bass and a harp alongside the typical guitar, drums and keys. But this isn’t O'Brien laying it on with a trowel – the flourishes are used sparingly, with harp trills scattered like glitter, and tiny bass runs entering halfway through songs to massive but subtle effect. On every song, with every arrangement, the sound is absolutely enrapturing.

O'Brien bravely sticks mainly to the new material (we get the entire album, actually) but sticks to this more stripped back mode for the old stuff too. “Nothing Arrived” is pared right back from its uplifting drive, to a near-solo fingerpicking exercise. It sounds all the stronger for it, putting the focus on the song itself, and proving that underneath the experimentation of Awayland’s production were numbers that could bear the closest scrutiny.

If you want to make the tiniest complaint, it’s a slight shame that we don’t hear Villagers really open up and truly test out the acoustics of the hall (the closest we get is a slightly muted version of the climax to “The Waves”) but when the detail of the arrangements are so gorgeous, it’s no grumble really. The balance of the sound and the pacing of the set is exquisite, and they’re right not to throw the equilibrium off kilter.

Taken alongside the rest of his material, O'Brien’s new songs of selfhood, sexuality and love form a new and natural part of a deeply poetic whole. Don’t let their apparent simplicity fool you. Darling Arithmetic is the third gold standard album from Villagers in a row, adding to a world class body of work. Tonight once again proves that Villagers are one of today’s most thrilling and accomplished acts, both on record, and in performance.

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