Villagers doesn’t need much to make an astounding song. Consisting of a one-man village of talent, Conor O’Brien makes a muchness out of very little, with his unassuming voice and seemingly simple songs building on one another in ways that you would never expect.
I first came across O’Brien in the form of a video of him singing a song – Pieces – in his kitchen. This moment of guard-down, open performance captured tentatively inside the home is something that isn’t unusual on YouTube, but what did strike me as unusual was the powerful, pained way in which Conor controlled his voice along with the climbing intensity of the song. What struck me as even more unusual, after some digging around, was the discovery of that song in different forms, its narrative breathing freely over a score of orchestration just as comfortably as it had been lovingly served up warm in the kitchen. O’Brien is a performer of diverse talents, and his songs take diverse forms. This was the first, important reason why Villagers intrigued me.
The second reason is, simply, that voice. O’Brien sings with an easy frankness that almost spills over into fragility, letting his notes waver and thicken with emotion. In The Pact (I’ll Be Your Fever) for instance, the vocal seems to swim apart from the throng of music, a nonchalant, shoe-scuffing walk over a richly illustrated landscape. The falsetto control, alongside the boyish enunciation and occasionally outraged amplification, show a range that is an intense surprise as much as it is a tender, humanising touch. The willingness of this singer-songwriter to scale heights and plumb depths with his deceptively straight-forward, no-nonsense voice is just one facet of his startling adventurousness.
In The Waves, a brand new track from the upcoming second album ‘Awayland’, it’s clear that Villagers is sailing in an ever more confident, ever more bizarre direction. This fearlessness when it comes to pushing away from the shore is something that has to be admired in any artist, and for O’Brien, with his voice so distinct and so on-the-line, this feels somehow particularly vulnerable, and particularly bold. “Maybe try it on headphones first, without interruption,” O’Brien suggests on his website, by way of introduction to this startlingly new album. He claims to have left “furrowed-brow seriousness” behind in his new sound, and in the shuffling tone that’s practically audible in his little introductory note, it’s clear that this “diverse” new album is one to be excited for, and even anxious about.
The Waves builds to an alarming, heady climax in its climbing of brash, beeping noise; and yet, eternally clear and eternally charming in the centre of it all is the voice and the mind that anchors it together. A cheeky turn of phrase, a note let go like a breath, a masterful twist in song structure are all blinding little details that are essentially what makes Villagers into a talent that I would recommend giving a real listen to sometime. Maybe try it on headphones first, without interruption; with a story, and an imagination, that move this fast, you’ll need to follow closely to keep up.