I thought Villagers’ first album, the navel-gazing, solipsistic Becoming A Jackal, was as terrible as it was over-rated. I thought their follow-up, Awayland, was surprisingly great. It found frontman Conor O’Brien working more with his band, producing bolder, more expansive, infinitely fuller songs. It pushed beyond the sparse, acoustic guitar-based vapidness that stands for the worst stereotypes of “singer-songwriter”. Darling Arithmetic draws more from that well - the terrible one. The album produced isn’t terrible, but, well, gosh if it’s ever unambitious.
The result is an album that rewards and repels in modes at polar opposites to its predecessor. O’Brien has returned to working as a lone wolf and the music produced is significantly less ambitious than anything like The Waves. Instead Darling Arithmetic works in slow, crisp beats and airy production work, all over staples of piano and noodling guitar. The music has a cohesion and unity that is satisfying, but also points to the sense of interchangeability of every song. By the end of the nine songs and thirty-six minutes, which is exactly as long as this album should be, you feel a bit like you’ve heard the same two songs over and over again. There’s the slightly up-beat, slightly-feisty one and the slower, soulful one. The Soul Serene sits somewhere in the middle, held up by the magnetism of its central bass hook. It may not be the most ambitious track, but it’s the best O’Brien pulls off in this more reserved, moody style.
The rest of the album is an easy listen, but one that rarely seems interested in really catching the ear. It settles for the finger tap. At most. The result of this highly unambitious style is an album that’s never actually bad – with the exception of the terrible title track – but not remotely something you’d actually recommend to someone unless they’d “connect to it”. Vocally O’Brien has tuned his half-spoken, half-sung style to a soulful sweetspot, but rarely pushes himself to anything more strenuous than normal speaking volume. Based on his singing I can imagine conversations with this man are conducted within inches.
One of the central problems I had with Awayland was the disconnected, word-vomit lyricism. Songs were constructed around a series of phrases that sounded meaningful individually but weren’t even remotely cohesive. It made for baffling listening at times. Darling Arithmetic avoids that pitfall, ditching the imagistic nothingness for tracks actually grounded in some form of narrative, expressing some kind of message beyond “this song is a bit ominous,” or “watch out for people because they are shit,” as was the mode of Awayland. Instead O’Brien has produced his most intimate, personal album, and, lyrically, by far his most rewarding. At times his musings on love, that oft-neglected topic, can veer into the sentimental and mawkish, but it’s grounded in an honesty and sincerity that leaves you feeling bad for criticising it. It’s much too open for that kind of cynicism, partly because there’s a keen sense of self awareness, as on tracks like Little Bigot, which up-ends its trite “Love is me, Love is all, Love is you,“ with a stinging rebuttal to, well, a little bigot.
That track offers a way in to one of the album’s central themes and the one at the core of its sense of sudden openness. It may seem implausible but, as a gay man in Ireland, O’Brien has probably dealt with his fair share of little bigots. This album embraces that identity, and O’Brien deserves credit for that. It’s an album of immense longing and soulfulness, to the point of cliché, that just happens to be about men. That doesn’t excuse the heavy-handed writing, but it tells you that when he sings about Courage he knows what he’s talking about. The album opener starts with the lines “It took a little time to get where I wanted / It took a little time to get free / It took a little time to be honest / It took a little time to be me”; Darling Arithmetic has that same feeling of positive self-reflexivity. It’s a step backward from Awayland, but mostly a step inward. It means more navel-gazing, but a tolerable kind, and music that sounds at peace with that, content not to push things beyond the odd echo-chamber. Maybe his next release will have the freedom and confidence to sound as courageous as his words are here.