Villagers is the chosen moniker of Irish songwriter Conor J. O’Brien a startling new talent, spending his formative music education in critically acclaimed band Dublin band The Immediate. After a few years writing, he now emerges solo, and fully formed as a new signing on the well respected imprint Domino records. With his short dark hair and intense eyes, and a name like Conor he has been compared to Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes but despite the obvious it’s somewhat of a red herring. His voice is at once familiar yet individual: perhaps you can compare his dark literate folk-pop to the melodrama of Patrick Wolf’s ‘Wind in the Wires’ album, or the tender poetic presence of Paul Simon’s folk pop and while he clearly owes a debt to the intimacy of Eliot Smith, right here in 2010 he sounds like no one else, sometimes frail and confessional at others confident and self aware, his words tumbling into vivid life creating characters on a page, from hypnotic tone to howl, each prosaic lyrical piece detailing intertwining autobiography and character study, above expertly produced musical journeys through his world. ‘Becoming a Jackal’ is his magnetic debut album and these are my impressions of it.
The sinister strings of opener ‘I Saw The Dead’ usher in waltzing pianos, O’Brien weaving a ghostly Hitchcock-insecure-narrative that puts you in the center of a long night of visions, that bleed into clattering drums, waspish guitars, and a nightmarish conclusion. This scene setter is followed swiftly by lead single and title track ‘Becoming a Jackal’ a story of obsession, lyrically reminiscent of Edgar Alan Poe, the personification of a Jackal’s imprisonment, left to pick over a doomed relationship, takes flight for freedom in its glorious hip shaking, almost rockabilly chorus ‘When I grew bolder/ Out onto the streets I flew / Released from your shackles / I danced with the jackals / And learned a new way to move”’. Then there’s ‘The Meaning of the Ritual’ the album’s center piece and one of the best pieces of music I’ve heard this year, pared back and subtle building from delicate to stately, sighing obos notes open the curtains on a stripped down acoustic strum that ticks like a old grandfather clock in the corner, as words on your page appear, O’Brien at first whispering in your ear, at once venerable and focussed, his restrained, yet utterly breath taking couples throw into sharp focus the lies at the heart of loving someone, pointed, literate, and truly epic “My love is selfish/ How it separates the earth/It takes every shiny stone but leaves the dirt/For the cowards in the corner who just don’t know what they’re worth/ They’ve been twisted by a hollow kind of pain/ Oh I can see it in their eyes but I ignore it every day.” flowing into a self empowered communal anthem, for everyone who has loved and lost. It’s utterly awe-inspiring.
From here on this utterly fabulous debut album gets a little more pop, the tinkling piano notes and clipped guitars of ‘Home’ vocals dipped in reverb hark back to the 1960s, O’Brien voice shifting effortlessly from first person to third person, from falsetto to howl, it’s dark character study of reaching the place where you or a loved one lives, its outro expanding into wide-screen pop that confirms the suspicion that this is harking back to the dark narrative pop suites of early Scott Walker. Phil Spector’s wall of sound is more prevent on ‘That Day’ another narrative that centres on another couple with its echoing drums, and racing rhythms, that stop for breath and delicate backings, to it’s urgent fever inducing denouement. ‘Pact (I’ll be your fever)’ in contrast is almost celebratory ode to obsession of a loved one who has things to teach you, O’Brien tender vocals are telling as his voice rides it’s easy clip-clopping rhythms that spiral joyously on plucked guitars, this is almost Ray Orbison in construct, simple effortlessly beautiful pop.
Taking it back down a notch in the final part, the pared back shuffle and swing of ‘Pieces’ is matched by O’Brien, who strikes a more venerable tone, gradually building from crumbled insecurity into a piece of theatrical melodrama of the like that Rufus Wainwright has made his own in recent years, the difference here is O’Brien confessional ability to connect at once with the listener and yet not swamp this delicate strings arrangement even with a wolf hound cry near the end of the track. Closer confirms his talent, shorn of all previous production now its just quivering voice that fades in and out of higher register and lonely open hearteded strum, a brittle piece of balladry, again shifting expertly from the intensely personal advice, to well observed tales of character on the street, but what’s truth and what’s fiction here? Who cares? This is tenderly rendered, poetic gorgeousness, that at once pleads to be part of a big city community and yet fears the consequences, it’s up there with the intimacy of Eliot Smith’s best work.
‘Becoming a Jackal’ introduces us to a fascinating talent, I urge you to delve deep into each act of his diverse debut album, from folky intimacy to wide screen pop, each song feeding into the sense that when backed up by his musical comrades, O’Brien has clearly read and listened well, an artist that promises in the future to provide us with yet more expertly produced soundtracks to his tales of love, insecurity, hope, horror and obsession as he puts it himself “I don’t want this ever to be the finished product, but to be constantly changing, moving and growing. I can hear so much more.” In the meantime his first chapter is riveting.