The Art of Pretending to Swim – Villagers
News of Villagers new album has been trickling out for a while. A few videos were released in recent weeks. First, the seminal ‘A Trick Of The Light’, then for ‘Fool’. Bound to generate a buzz, these Bob Gallagher directed works of art teased and taunted, pleased and prodded, and were guaranteed a response. They are visually enigmatic. Via this drip-feed effect for the ingeniously titled ‘The Art Of Pretending To Swim’, the viewer was left wondering, contemplating, and thirsting for more. We’d expect nothing less from Villagers.
There is much to explore in this album. Nine beautifully crafted and intelligent genre-defying examples from the artistic genius that is Conor O’Brien. We’ve known and loved him since ‘Becoming A Jackal’ made our day back in 2010. That first album enraptured our souls and catapulted O’Brien on to the Irish and UK music scene. It brought nominations for The Mercury Prize and The Choice Music Prize. Everybody’s darling now, he followed up with two more albums; Choice Music Prize winning ‘Awayland’ in 2013, and Ivor Novello Award winning ‘Darling Arithmetic’ in 2015.
With chalking up all that success over the past decade, why then does ‘The Art Of Pretending To Swim’ suggest some sort of struggle to stay afloat, to bluff the bluffers, to keep on keeping on? It is symptomatic that the best creative minds often battle the most self-doubt. For some that becomes insurmountable and the weight unbearable. It’s a side effect of the truly and absolutely talented. We must count O’Brien among the greatest songwriters in Ireland. Many of them have been tormented, tortured souls in one way or another.
However, while these songs tackle the dark and the difficult, it is often with a wry, dry humour, a self-deprecating sense of fun. There’s something in O’Brien’s demeanour that suggests he might be taking the piss just a little bit perhaps. A masquerade of sorts. His bewitching, yet pensive expression suggests an endearing, beatific medieval monk who has secretly just had an accidental encounter with DMT. It’s almost, well, holy; visionary.
If we lend him our ears, we soon realise that he’s incredibly brainy. There are cerebral tendencies at work, maybe even some undercover divine inspiration. The dichotomy between real and envisioned, light and dark, science and spiritual, technology and art might just be a theme.
There’s a clue to that effect in the opening lines of ‘Again’ pacing the rollercoaster of the creative process, the highs, lows, and the isolation. Yet there is magic in falling under that divine spell again as if there’s no escape from the insidious inspiration. Despite the confusion, this artist just has to let go and go with the flow:
Let it flow into a bottomless hole again as I feel it ripple and ready its soul, again, alone again.
O’Brien is a master of melody, carefully crafting each song with memorable, tuneful verse and chorus. He makes it seem so effortless, yet if you listen very carefully, there is so much ingenuity and texture. I found I just needed to go back to the beginning of each track and listen again, and again to make sure those mesmeric bubbling-under, seagull sound effects weren’t just some figment of my imagination.
The first single from the album is ‘A Trick Of The Light’ and the aforementioned video is highly recommended viewing. It is described by O’Brien as:
a short film in which we follow a dishevelled shamanistic protagonist who mysteriously triggers an altered state of consciousness in everyone he meets, or at least believes that he does.
This shamanistic connection is fitting. This album oozes soul – not just musically, but lyrically. It’s probably the word I hear most often.
There’s an ocean in my body and there’s a river in my soul. It’s time to let go of the things I can’t control.
In the art of pretending to swim there is no more treading water or fighting the tides. Just give yourself, go with the flow and see what it brings.
More cosmic sound effects weave throughout as do the spiritual and shamanic references. The man of the faith moves on to ‘Sweet Saviour’. He dreams of a screen icon praised for eternity. Only from O’Brien are we blessed with poetically twisted lyrics:
The movie was a tapestry of transcendental memory; a fountain of potential in its prime.
It’s hard to separate the wheat from the chaff in ‘The Art Of Pretending To Swim’. Each track is exceptional. This is pure quality.
‘Long Time Waiting’ continues to encapsulate the essence of existentialism combined with curious celestial choirs. It’s haunting, like some strange sirens beckoning from the sea.
I could do without this talk of getting ahead when it takes all I’ve got to get out of bed.
Needing no validation or trophy consolation “for something that I never lost”, heralds a musical translation of chaos and cacophony – reflective of a mind in meltdown – yet somehow O’Brien manages to make it sound like one hell of a party.
‘Fool’ is a mildly caustic commentary on modern romance in the age of technology. Again, the video – complete with O’Brien’s ripped out, bleeding heart – is a gifted interpretation. From infomercials to Instagram dolls, the pen – once mightier than the sword – is rendered obsolete. Never mind – just “send your location”. In an album jam-packed with quality lyrics, this one drives it home:
The dopamine is dripping back into the kitchen sink.
‘Love Came With All That It Brings’ is burning with soul, laden with emotion, and rankling with deception:
Her marbles were lost in the raid. She severed her heart with the blade.
Hell is a place that’s reserved for people that fully deserve, and so she’s packing her bags just in case they’ve reserved her, her own special place.
There are even a few “motherfuckers” mixed in for good measure, along with the brass ensemble adding to the drama. That’s the beauty of this album. Expect the unexpected.
‘Real Go-Getter’ features many more cosmic, weird, and wonderful sound effects with various orchestral manoeuvres all recorded by O’Brien with a little help from his friends, at his own home recording studio. It’s quite exquisite. That sardonic humour keeps seeping through:
Since I got better, I’m a real go-getter.
‘Hold Me Down’ feels like a bit of a hangover song. Again, the trademark O’Brien melody spins us into a certain insanity, pulls us in, spins us around. Musically driven, this madness is a beautiful thing.
At just over six minutes, ‘Ada’ is the longest track. It’s considered to be a tribute to the nineteenth-century mathematician Ada Lovelace, the only legitimate daughter of Lord Byron, and publisher of the first algorithm for a proposed general purpose computer. As with most great women of science and the mathematical arts, little is known of her. O’Brien will help put that to rights.
Accordion and seagull sound effects, a trip back in time, multiple instruments jostle, cajole and mesmerize. ‘Ada’ is, like it’s subject matter, is a one-off. This is without-doubt one of the best albums I’ve heard in a long time. The purity of O’Brien’s voice, the quality of musicianship and exceptional lyrical genius, the madness, the mystery, and the magic are unparalleled.
No arm-bands required. This swimmer is going the distance. Expect it to gather awards.