mon 30/01/2023

Villagers, Liquid Room, Edinburgh | reviews, news & interviews

Villagers, Liquid Room, Edinburgh

Villagers, Liquid Room, Edinburgh

Conor J O'Brien and co sail close to perfection

Villagers' Conor J O'Brien: Bears comparison with the smartest pop craftsmen

Last week Villager-in-Chief Conor J O’Brien was awarded an Ivor Novello award (Best Song Musically and Lyrically, in case you’re curious) for the title track of his Mercury Prize-nominated debut album Becoming a Jackal.

Several questions arise from this fact (one of them being: do they have an award for Best Song Musically but not Lyrically?), but the most pressing is this: just how many more gongs will O'Brien win before the decade is out?

This man is a very exciting songwriter. The great thing about his compositions is that they rarely go where you expect them to. This sense of unpredictability can frequently be off-putting in other artists (let's face it, more often than not we like to know where we’re being taken, even if we pretend we don't), but O’Brien manages to surprise without disappointing, which is rarer than it sounds.

There was a playfulness in the way he carried himself that matched the sense of joie de vivre his writing brings to even the darkest of songs

Musically his songs are slippery and serpentine but always melodic, full of jazzy diminished chords and unexpected minor falls often allied to a vaguely tribal rhythmic pulse. Lyrically they hint at horror and myth, full of fevers and sudden darknesses, the taste of flesh, talk of saints, sins and snakes. Last night O’Brien played (and generally improved upon) pretty much all of Becoming a Jackal, but he started with a new one, stepping out alone to sing “Cecilia and Her Selfhood”, a wry shaggy-dog story about the vandalism of a statue with a characteristic twist of magic realism in its tail. It was a handy primer for what was to come: over an hour of understated adventurousness which was hard to fault on any level.

The short opening acoustic set peaked with “Pieces”. Performed with just O'Brien's voice and guitar and subtle keyboard accompaniment, it was not just tremendously moving, but proof if it were needed that smart, knowing pop music need not place any bar on genuine emotion. The rest of the excellent four-piece band arrived shortly after and added layers of nuance (and sometimes a good old-fashioned crunch) to these already sophisticated songs. “The Meaning of the Ritual” expanded from its Baroque acoustic beginnings into something huge and rather menacing. Another new track, “Grateful Song”, was built from the floorboards up on an ominous drone which dragged everyone into its orbit. 

villagers3What isn’t immediately apparent on record but which was driven home last night is what a deceptively powerful and versatile instrument O’Brien’s voice is. Clear and almost conversational in its middle register, with a clenched vibrato that sometimes recalled Feargal Sharkey, it slipped easily up to a high, pure falsetto on a version of “Twenty-Seven Strangers” which reduced the recorded version to rubble. At other times it rose to a raw, anguished howl. Yet not once did it look like he was breaking much of a sweat.

An Irishman in his early twenties who looks roughly 14, the singer cut a strangely charismatic figure: tiny, neat, self-contained, he came to Edinburgh apparently dressed for a hard day’s book-keeping, resplendent in anonymous bomber jacket, sensible shirt and trousers. He didn’t say much but there was a playfulness in the way he carried himself that matched the sense of joie de vivre his writing brings to even the darkest of songs.

I could hear a touch of Wild Beasts in “Becoming a Jackal” and the throbbing “I Saw the Dead”, but the most telling reference points were more venerable. On last night’s evidence, O’Brien can be compared to the very smartest pop craftsmen without looking out of his depth: “Home”, a miniature jewel, had all the detail and eloquence of Imperial Bedroom-era Elvis Costello. “Ship of Promises” and particularly “Set the Tigers Free”, meanwhile, recalled the grace and ambition of Paddy McAloon's writing around the time Prefab Sprout were making Steve McQueen.

The melody of “Set the Tigers Free”, so crisp and utterly pleasing, slipped so naturally into the groove of the clicking rhythm that it seemed impossible to believe that this song had once never existed. On a night that sailed close to flawlessness several times, these four thrilling minutes came within a hair's breadth of genuine perfection.

Watch the video for Villagers' "That Day"


He cut a strangely charismatic figure: tiny, neat, self-contained, he came to Edinburgh apparently dressed for a hard day’s book-keeping

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