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Becoming A Jackal

Astonishing new album from ex-Immediate wunderkind

Rating: 9 / 10

Olaf Tyaransen, 19 May 2010

Wow! Combining dramatic narratives, emotionally resonant lyrics, and melodies you could drown in, this hotly anticipated debut from talented Dubliner Conor J. O’Brien – formerly of The Immediate and now trading under the name Villagers – is a mightily impressive affair. It’s not just the fact that he played almost all of the instruments himself. With the haunting poeticism and warped wisdom of his words, O’Brien comes across very much like an old head on young shoulders, belying his relative youth (he’s in his mid-twenties).

The first track, ‘I Saw The Dead’, signals that the first Irish act ever to sign to the prestigious Domino label is worthy of the hype. With a droning organ, eerie strings and tinkling piano, it opens sounding like the sweeping soundtrack to a Kieślowski movie. At least until he starts to sing, at which point it becomes something else entirely: “Have you got just a minute? / Are you easily led?/ Let me show you the backroom/ Where I saw the dead/ Dancing like children on a midsummer morn/ and they asked me to join.” Paddy Casey this ain’t!

The title track, and first single, follows. Gradually building in intensity, ‘Becoming A Jackal’ is pure breezy pop imperfection. There’s a Feargal Sharkey-esque quaver in O’Brien’s voice as he sings, “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.”

Two songs in and you know that this album is something special. Amazingly, it just gets better. Delivery-wise, there’s a hint of Coldplay’s Chris Martin on ‘The Meaning of the Ritual’, a study of the darker side of romance: “My love is selfish/ and I bet that yours is too/ What is this peculiar word called truth?/ My love is selfish/ and it cares not who it hurts/ it will cut you out to satisfy its thirst/ for the meaning of the ritual.”

The instrumentation trickery is often subtle and many of his melodies are deceptively simple, resulting in a deep timeless sound (the likes of Simon & Garfunkel and Paul Simon occasionally spring to mind). However, even when he’s being outwardly poppy, the darkness is never too far away on masterful tracks like ‘The Pact (I’ll Be Your Fever)’ and the memorably howled ‘Pieces’.

‘Twenty-seven Strangers’, meanwhile, is possibly the most hauntingly melancholic song about getting the late bus home ever written (“The bus was late/ and forced us all to congregate/ twenty-seven strangers made to stand and wait”). The bus eventually breaks down outside a graveyard. But of course it does . . .

“There is a crack in everything,” Leonard Cohen once observed. “That’s how the light gets in.” It’s only May, but the wonderfully cracked Becoming A Jackal is already a strong contender for Irish album of 2010.

Rating: 9 / 10
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