The Art of Pretending to Swim, the fifth album by Dublin quintet Villagers, is a focused affair that places singer-songwriter Conor O’Brien’s gentle voice, unnerving poetry and acoustic guitar in a carefully sculpted soundscape of digital bleeps, orchestral swells and odd choices. The production, like the songs themselves, walk a fine balance between disrupting the listener’s expectations and following the expected paths of folk music.
Indeed, the band have been attempting to navigate this balance throughout their career, with O’Brien’s instincts to follow his experimental inclinations often clashing, at times even jarringly, with his more traditional leanings. The bells and whistles can be a bit distracting on some of these numbers, especially as the two time Ivor Novello winning O’Brien is no slouch with a pen, and his lyrics and earnest delivery are a large part of what makes Villagers’ music so striking. Their strongest albums have been the stripped back ones, focused on the intensity and beauty of O’Brien’s voice and songs, being their debut Becoming a Jackal and 2016’s live-in-the-studio Where Have You Been All My Life?
But The Art of Pretending to Swim is certainly no stain on their reputation, though the depth of its production guarantees that listeners will have to try a bit harder to get to know the songs before they can seep under their skin.
Written for Beat Magazine.