Conor obrien

O’Brien scales back to folk on Villagers’ latest

The Dublin-based band Villagers has taken a stylistic turn with “Darling Arithmetic.”

Musical Notes / By Colleen Taylor

Hot off the presses, the new Villagers album is out. Its intriguing title is “Darling Arithmetic,” and it represents the album’s foray into past unconscious realms of young love. As such, the album moves in two directions—backwards into the mind and its memories, but forward in the sense of the musician’s own progress, as he delves back into the Indie, acoustic songwriting scene in Ireland. Like the past two Villagers albums before it, “Darling Arithmetic” is one-of-a-kind, and most importantly it’s a provocatively emotive experience crafted organically by songsmith Conor O’Brien.

Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter

Sign up today to get daily, up-to-date news and views from Irish America.

Villagers is the title of Dublin native O’Brien’s musical persona and project. Officially launched in 2010 under his debut album, “Becoming a Jackal,” for which he enlisted artists Tommy McLaughlin, Danny Snow, James Byrne, and Cormac Curran to form a more sonically comprehensive band, it was enthusiastically received by critics. This initial release was even listed for Mercury Music Prize—an impressive feat for a first album. O’Brien also won the “Best Song Musically and Lyrically Ivor Novello Award” for “Becoming a Jackal” in 2011. The release of Villagers’ sophomore album was equally stellar, as “{Awayland}” made more waves for O’Brien and his band in 2013. Rather than follow up the success of “Becoming a Jackal” with a similar sequel, “{Awayland}”, also nominated for a Mercury Prize, turned the group in a different stylistic direction, incorporating trendy electronic-pop influences into their more natural folk base. Villagers seems dissatisfied with stasis, always looking to alter their stylistic status quo, as their third release evinces. “Darling Arithmetic” is both distinctive and unlike its ancestor albums: it symbolizes yet another stylistic turn, or rather return, for O’Brien’s musical creativity.

Interestingly, “Darling Arithmetic” seems to have come full circle for O’Brien. He started out as a solo folk artist, and this third release honors that original identity in its scaled back, acoustic, more traditional sound. This is an album of romance, and its folk acoustic soloist style reflects that tender sector of human emotion that is the subject matter of “Darling Arithmetic’s” songs. The lyrics address the human complexity and vulnerability of romantic love, so it makes sense that Conor O’Brien has returned to working on a quieter register.

The influence of the American folk revival—the Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, Simon and Garfunkel, and Peter Seeger legacy—is overt in this album. But there’s something distinctly Irish in the “Darling Arithmetic” too. The Irishness is more subtle, but it lingers in what one might label a maritime tenor and theme. That heritage is rhythmically present in the music’s Joyceanesque attention to water flow, the chords ebbing and flowing like waves. One of the best tracks on the album, “The Soul Serene” even opens on a strand: “So I go walking on the shore / And wonder what I’m walking for.” While the overall stylistic arc of the album is rooted in tradition, once again Villagers gives folk music freshness. The collisions of past and present are rendered thematically in the artist’s lyrics and videos as well. In the music video “Everything I Am Is Yours” the musician’s memory of past scorned love overlaps with the music he plays in present day, so that then and now, other and self, become one.

It’s hard to say whether fans and critics will be as pleased with “Darling Arithmetic” as they were with “Becoming a Jackal” and “{Awayland}.” On the surface, it does not appear as ambitious or inventive, but its connections with the folk roots of mid-20th century make it an admirable homage. The Villagers fan will certainly not be displeased with “Darling Arithmetic”—O’Brien’s voice is as interesting, his instrumentation as skilled, and his lyrics as thought-provoking as in his previous work. For someone interested in genre crossover and modern folk invention like me, however, one runs the risk of being underwhelmed. I enjoyed listening to “Darling Arithmetic” but it didn’t excite me the way “{Awayland}’s” energetic electro-folk, sometimes pop-y, sometimes rock-y stylistic explosions did. A song like “Everything I am is Yours” or “Courage” just can’t compete with the energy and seamless, multiple layers of sounds that ignite in “The Bell” or “Earthly Pleasure” in “{Awayland},” or even the title track of “Becoming a Jackal.” Admittedly, “{Awayland}” was a hard act to follow, and it’s possible no artist can be so inventive two times in a row. Perhaps it’s unfair to even compare the two; they are different projects, different albums from different bands. For me, “{Awayland}” remains Villagers’ masterpiece, but “Darling Arithmetic” is a beautiful, calming, tender listening experience that deserves commendation.

Villagers will be busy next month sharing his new music with fans across the Ireland (with a major performance at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre), the UK, and with a stop-off in California in June. “Darling Arithmetic” is now available in the US on iTunes, and you can watch the accompanying music videos online at