On Villagers’ most recent album The Art of Pretending to Swim Conor O’Brien has got his groove back, and then some. The nifty studio magic that gained his band a raft of followers through their first two releases has been distilled by a master craftsman, O’Brien himself, and blended with the raw potency of 2015’s Ivor Novello-winning Darling Arithmetic. The result is a heady concoction; harmonically vibrant and playful with subtly textured rhythms, and laced with O’Brien’s always intriguing lyricism. It tempers listeners with bold satire and heartfelt musings on where we place our faith – in love, humanity, religion, ourselves – all served over luscious layers of acoustic guitar, piano, strings, brass, and occasionally low-key EDM.
Bringing an album of this sonic complexity into a live setting presents those same old challenges from the earlier recordings but O’Brien has assembled a fine musical collective to support his endeavor, most of whom toured Darling Arithmetic and later crafted the live recording Where Have You Been All My Life. He also has a breathtaking opener for this run of shows in Billie Marten, whose heart-on-sleeve songwriting and bare-bones delivery softens and diffuses any pre-gig tension, melting anxiety whilst gently building anticipation for the main event. A kind of Julia Jacklin wit by way of Lucy Rose delivery. Poignant and ethereal. Also, she brought cake – lemon drizzle – as a sort of apology for having not brought any merchandise “because I’m a terrible person”. She is not terrible; nor is her cake, nor her performance. All are quantifiably sweet.