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INDIE POP/ROCK

THE ART OF PRETENDING TO SWIM

Villagers/Domino/

four stars

In his early days, when the Dublin band Villagers made a splash with their Mercury Prize-nominated album Becoming A Jackal in 2010, frontman Conor O’Brien (proper) was usually in contrast with Conor Oberst of the Nebraskan outfit Bright Eyes.

The first title apart, the 2 share an admirable restlessness in exploring musical genres, flipping and melding, creating their very own alongside the way in which. These two acts are ostensibly folks, or various folks, however the epithet feels considerably inadequate.

Villagers’ fourth studio album, The Art Of Pretending To Swim, proves how true that impression is and the way far O’Brien has sojourned.

“I’ve found it again (Again)/A space in my heart again (Again),” he sings within the breezy opener Again, over mellifluous guitar, piano and drums. Just as you’re going to peg it as a folksy quantity, it blooms right into a psychedelic shindig. Synths percolate, braiding with hen chirping.

Whereas Villagers’ final album, Darling Arithmetic (2015), was a defiantly moving affair as O’Brien wrestles together with his sexuality, Pretending To Swim is about “survival and grace”. As he explains in an interview: “(In life) you’re not drowning, but you’re not exactly swimming either; you’re making it all up as you go along. It’s a blind faith.”

As a complete, the album feels liberated. The horizon has opened up and he’s unafraid, come what might. In A Trick Of The Light, he is found inside peace: “What can I say? I’m a man of the faith/And there’s an ocean in my body/And there’s a river in my soul.”

The music, too, has the easy sway of somebody who is prepared to glide. There is a groove in his step as he ventures into R&B and dips into soul, as synths rise like dawn.

Such is the case with the gently funky ballad Sweet Saviour, the place each the secular and religious align and you’re buoyed alongside by his passion. “Never did a soul touch your body so divine/And never did a heartbeat so fast eclipse mine,” he sings because the drums mimic the scuttling coronary heart.

This is counter-pointed by Long Time Waiting, a taut and considerate exposition on procrastination. “You can’t sit back when you’re taking a stand,” he exhorts over an insistent piano hook and an ethereal, haunting synth circling above.

“I don’t need no validation/From anyone at any cost/A trophy consolation,” he realises.

With the enlightenment come self-determination and a way of mischief.

Real Go-Getter is an inside tug-of-war that belies his newfound confidence. “Things have got better I’m a real go-getter,” he chants, as if to remind himself. The track enters uncharted territory, a dusting of digital blips and squelches laid over ebullient percussion and an intricate layering of vocals, switching between excessive and low registers.

Quietly, O’Brien has travelled and imbibed, older and wiser, but amazingly youthful in spirit.

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