Album Review: Villagers – Where Have You Been All My Life?

By on Monday, 11th January 2016 at 12:00 pm
 

Villagers WHYB cover‘Darling Arithmetic’, Conor J. O’Brien’s third album under the Villagers name, was characterised by a deliberately pared back, streamlined approach to songwriting, in contrast to the experimentalism of previous album ‘{Awayland}’ and Villagers’ debut LP ‘Becoming a Jackal’. Where the first two albums, ‘{Awayland}’ in particular, were intricate and complex, ‘Darling Arithmetic’ was purposefully simple and sparse, stripped back both musically and emotionally as O’Brien attempted to write concise and candid songs without the pretense of symbolism and metaphor he had used as a crutch in the past.

When touring for ‘Darling Arithmetic’ began, O’Brien’s newly simplified songwriting style shifted Villagers’ previous music into a different context. Live versions of older songs were rearranged and reorchestrated to bring them more in line with songs from the new album, and the end result was an organic emotional energy that quickly inspired O’Brien to return to the recording studio. Villagers’ new compilation album, the charmingly titled ‘Where Have You Been All My Life?’ is a collection of 12 tracks recorded in a single day at London’s RAK Studios, all on the first or second take. Joining O’Brien in the studio were producer Richard Woodcraft (Radiohead, The Last Shadow Puppets) and Villagers’ live sound engineer Ber Quinn, along with band members Cormac Curran on piano and synthesiser, Danny Snow on double bass, Mali Llywelyn on harp, mellotron and vocals, and Gwion Llewelyn on drums, flugelhorn and vocals.

The sonic atmosphere of ‘Where Have You Been All My Life?’ is precisely what the album’s press release promises: “a lush, harmony-laden and vibrant document of a time and a place.” Fully half of the album is comprised of songs from the recent ‘Darling Arithmetic’, including ‘The Soul Serene’, whose sweeping tranquility reflects the overall character of ‘Where Have You Been All My Life?’ and whose lyrics are themselves reflected in the title. The earlier tracks taken from ‘Becoming a Jackal’ and ‘{Awayland}’ are softened and expanded in the live recordings, beginning with the slightly off-kilter harmonies of ‘Set the Tigers Free’ and ‘My Lighthouse’.

One of the most striking revisions on the album appears in ‘That Day’, originally released on ‘Becoming a Jackal’. The pastiche of stylistic elements in ‘That Day’ are smoothed and melded together in this new version, and the song unfolds and evolves much more naturally than in the original recording. The subtle instrumentation imparts a slightly different emotional flavour to the lyrics “can you hear me now / lying in this bed / embedded in this written story” as O’Brien sings them from a farther-removed distance, perhaps beyond the story’s conclusion.

Along with the previously released tracks, the compilation includes a new recording of ‘Memoir’, which O’Brien originally wrote for Charlotte Gainsbourg‘s 2011 album ‘Stage Whisper’. Softly sultry and overtly sensual, the song is a nice change of pace from the more mellow air of the preceding tracks, and O’Brien’s vocals work surprisingly well in the lightly jazz-inflected context. ‘Memoir’ segues effortlessly into ‘Hot Scary Summer’, whose lyric “this shouldn’t be hard work” ostensibly refers to the end of a romantic relationship but could as just as easily have been a revelation about songwriting.

[youtube]https://youtu.be/RELpJxjh8IQ[/youtube]

Stylistically schizophrenic in its original ‘{Awayland}’ arrangement, ‘The Waves’ is here stretched to 7 minutes in duration by virtue of an evocative and anticipatory instrumental introduction. The beautifully crystalline and harmonically colorful piano arrangement of ‘Darling Arithmetic’ is as blissful in the live version as in the original recording, and the plucked guitar rhythm of ‘So Naïve’ is only slightly altered beneath its exquisitely ethereal instrumental soundscape.

‘’Where Have You Been All My Life?” closes with a cover of classic American country song ‘Wichita Lineman’, written by Jimmy Webb and made popular by Glen Campbell in the late 1960s. Celebrated for its timelessness and near universal appeal, the song is in perfect keeping with O’Brien’s recent songwriting strategy, and while the shimmering piano in his version is quite different from the more country-tinged original, its yearning emotional impact is very much the same.

This new Villagers album is a testament to the quality of Conor J. O’Brien’s songwriting, in the sense that his songs stand up well to this kind of reworking, and a testament to his versatility as a songwriter in that he is willing to deconstruct his own work in order to create something new and contextually different. He has achieved a sort of nirvana with this cohesive and emotionally effective collection of songs, which is at once easy on the ears and warmly soothing to the heart.

8.5/10

Villagers’ new compilation album ‘Where Have You Been All My Life?’ is out now on Domino Records. O’Brien and his bandmates will tour the album in the UK and Ireland beginning later this month; you can find all the dates here. Previous TGTF coverage of Villagers is right back here.

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