- 28 Sep 18
Irish star makes stunning return.
It’s perhaps a little too easy to take Villagers front man Conor O’Brien for granted. When his big reveal, Becoming A Jackal (2010), dropped upon our heads, you could be excused for expecting this to be the mark against which all future offerings would be measured. To that end, you might forgive the Malahide man a misstep or two. On the evidence of The Art Of Pretending To Swim, however, there is no need. You will have to wait a little longer for his off-day. Far from pretending, O’Brien has once again confirmed himself to be the real deal.
The rhythm of the record is established from the starter’s gun: “I found again,” O’Brien sings, “a space in my heart again/ for God again/ in the form of art again.”
The opening lyrics to the train-like ‘Again’ confirm that the beautiful introspection of 2015’s Darling Arithmetic endures as a modus operandi, but the sparsity of that record gives way here to all the bells, whistles and seagulls O’Brien has in his extensive locker. The tempo ebbs and flows. ‘A Trick Of The Light’ sounds like a Flight Of The Conchords track fused with the concept of an Enda Walsh play. The album has a deft touch of everything: from the curious (‘Fool’), to the ominous (‘Love Came With All That It Brings’) to the downright trippy (the sumptuous closer ‘Ada’).
Indeed, there is a timelessness to Pretending To Swim that leaves you with the sense that O’Brien and Villagers have been here before – or at least a lot longer than the eight years across which he or they have released four albums. In tongue-in-cheek wine parlance: there are hints of Sufjan Stevens, followed by an aftertaste of Sonic Youth.
O’Brien wrote, produced, mixed and is the primary performer throughout the entire album. For a brief moment, you can’t help wondering how easily all of this comes to him? Is it possible that his genius somehow diminishes the material? Every note of the album screams control. The craftsmanship, lyrics, and production are exemplary. It feels almost as if he is Will Hunting, burning the unsolvable theorems he has nonchalantly cracked before our eyes in the wastepaper basket, shouting “You know how easy this is for me?”
But then, Conor is not the shouting type. Besides, that’d be a supremely perverse complaint, to argue that an artist is just too good at what he does. But he is very, very good, and The Art Of Pretending To Swim is a treasure. Conor O’Brien has crafted his most accomplished album to date. Far from stressing about the ocean, it’s the stars that need to worry.