Album | Villagers – Darling Arithmetic

After his debut Becoming A Jackal and the harder sounds of Awayland, Conor O’Brien’s latest offering is carefully intimate and stripped-down, recorded in his home studio. Opening song ‘Courage’ is characteristically stoical/masochistic: the knowledge that life is not always easy is framed as ‘sweet relief’. Courage could have various connotations (from surviving a breakup, to coming out, to owning your mistakes), and this is a survival song.

It’s followed by ‘Every Thing I Am Is Yours’, a love song delivered in much the same intimate vein, then ‘Dawning On Me’, a lullaby for the restless, capturing slowly unfurling falling-in-love, with a second voice coming in (O’Brien duetting with himself?) so close to my ear it’s startling. This would, incidentally, be a great album to listen to in the dead of night.

‘Hot Scary Summer’ reminds me a little of Bill Callahan in the rhythm of its opening, then soars higher, showing really consummate storytelling. It drops you right into a relationship, articulate and atmospheric, pitched exactly right. I think it’s one of the most beautiful songs O’Brien’s ever written: brave, vulnerable, absorbing and understated.

‘The Soul Serene’ rides around a carousel, cumulative rhymes circling with the fairground, spinning into serenity. ‘Chameleon dreams’ suggest the possibility of adaptation and survival, as well as (self?)deception: ‘all is not as it seems’. It’s a bit like the ending of Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye (although I’ll avoid specific spoilers): acceptance, and a sense of pervasive mystery.

O’Brien’s poetic skill is also evident in title track ‘Darling Arithmetic’, which is very moving in its assessment of absence: ‘Are you hiding up here? Did they force you to disappear? Is it all just a dirty trick, my darling arithmetic?’. ‘Little Bigot’ is more musically tense, reminiscent of Awayland, patiently addressing homophobic hatred. The word ‘Little’ makes the bigot feel like a wayward, angry, oversized child, a weirdly tender address that cuts right through intimidation.

‘No One To Blame’ has beautiful echoing synths under its shy romance, slipping into some of the self-flagellation familiar from Becoming A Jackal: ‘and you’ll see me as I am, just an empty broken shell, then I’ll have no-one to blame, yes I’ve got no-one to blame but myself’. Forgive me if I take the ’empty, broken’ self-portrait with a pinch of salt – it’s not like these very substantive lyrics write themselves, Conor – but it’s another wonderful song.

‘So Naïve’ rounds things off with a hopeful view of the world – ‘every little part in aid of something bigger’ – while simultaneously questioning this belief: ‘I’m so naive’. The vocal delivery feels timeless and virtuosic here. The whole album unspools so slowly and gently that you’d think it wouldn’t succeed in holding attention all the way through, yet it does, apparently effortlessly. O’Brien has a very rare gift of being able to go slow and soft without sliding into a platitude or a dirge: like an uncannily controlled class, you’d listen to hear a pin drop. This space just allows his songs to reverberate outwards. A quietly compelling triumph.

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