ALBUM REVIEW: VILLAGERS – WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN ALL MY LIFE?

7/10

VILLAGERS - To play Irish dates

“Farewell to my only friend, you’ve been so good to me,” sings Conor O’Brien. These lyrics open Villagers’ new album, and in the wake of David Bowie’s sudden passing they assume an added poignancy. January 8th marked the release of both Where Have You Been All My Life and Bowie’s finale, Blackstar. Chalk it up to timing, but Villagers’ latest might comfort a public in the midst of some existential questioning.

After touring their last album, Darling Arithmetic, the Irish group re-interpreted a selection of their material in one inspired daylong session at London’s RAK studios. Sometimes, as with that album’s Hot Scary Summer, these versions differ only slightly from their counterparts. My Lighthouse, on the other hand (from the band’s {Awayland} effort), shines in its new attire, arriving awash with trumpet and haunted carnival organ. “We’ll drink to the gentle, the meek and the kind,” O’Brien humbly proclaims. His light, effortless way with a melody transforms that line into an inspired salute.

Twinkling pianos and synths surround the singer’s winsome voice. Instruments swell at the junction of the ethereal and the corporeal, filling hollows, never fully peaking. Herein lies the band’s strange magic: Villagers choose to hypnotize rather than energize. They create a plaintive space, ideal for brooding or reflection, depending on one’s preference.

When O’Brien breaks into his beautiful falsetto on That Day it’s immediately obvious why Villagers are perpetual Mercury Prize nominees. And occasionally the band choose to change it up. On Courage O’Brien pushes his subdued voice into a slightly grittier register, a welcome shift. The Waves begins with Bert Jansch-style fingerpicking, but soon crashes into the album’s densest wall of sound. During these few blissful sections, they give up total control and gain a deeper shade of soul.

Making folk-rock in 2015 takes a village, and O’Brien’s band-mates are no slouches. While the singer’s pensive persona propels these tunes, their tasteful touches knit a cozy shawl around him. And like spiritual kin Dawes and fellow countrymen the Frames, Conor delivers his harshest barbs with a tender tongue. “I remember you undressing as I set myself on fire,” O’Brien croons on stand-out Memoir, a tune he originally penned for Charlotte Gainsbourg.

An album-length meditation on movement, loss, and disconnection, Where Have You Been All My Life takes itself plenty seriously. By midpoint, the relentless sincerity and soft focus sound-scapes lose freshness. Atmospheric synth pads, while lovely embellishment, become predictable when stretched across twelve tracks. But when it all comes together, as on the album-closing cover of Glen Campbell’s 1968 hit Wichita Lineman Villagers are an exemplar of grace and subtlety. Taken in a therapeutic dose, Where Have You Been All My Life is a quietly cathartic stunner.

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