Villagers – Darling Arithmetic

The word confessional has been getting a lot of attention lately – The Guardian ran an article questioning why it was so often used to describe female singer-songwriters, and in a recent Pitchfork interview Owen Pallett declared “I hate those terms” and pointed out their misogynistic connotations, asking “what do men do? Do they need to get something off their chest?”

Whether you agree with the likes of Emmy The Great, Marika Hackman and St.Vincent that it is a terminology that seems to get aimed at female artists more than male, it’s quite easy to see the major problem with the term confessional. Confessional in music speak is generally meant to mean getting something of your chest, talking about yourself and your own personal issues; but the term confessional is highly loaded, it implies guilt, be it confessing to a crime or confessing your sins in church, so to label a songwriter confessional is to almost taint them with an implied guilt. This can come across as misogynistic if aimed at female songwriters, equally worryingly, it was a term used to describe Frank Ocean, but seemingly only after he came out as gay. We as a media must look to move away from tainting being female or gay and expressing your emotions with any feelings of guilt. It is all part of the industry trying to come to terms with the fact that music is no longer the playground of straight-men singing about sex, murder or wizards!

The issue here is that the media, ourselves included, are always looking to apply a context to a musicians lyricism and style. We think we know what someone is trying to say, and often wrongly assume that someone is singing about themselves. Nick Cave sings about killing people but we don’t assume he’s a murderer, so why do we assume that every songwriter who sings about issues closer to home is telling us the whole truth? A female musician isn’t always singing the pages of her diary, and a male songwriter isn’t always singing about huge sweeping world issues, sometimes it’s just the society we live in shaping the way we think.

Now we’re off to frantically remove every reference to the word confessional in all our previous posts!

Villagers – Darling Arithmetic

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Darling Arithmetic is the Villagers third album, it follows their Mercury nominated second album {Awayland} and their, errm, Mercury nominated debut album Becoming The Jackal: no pressure then!

The two previous albums introduced us to not just the world of Villagers singer and songwriter Connor O’Brien, but also to that of his impressive band. On {Awayland} in particular, his music had become far removed from his folk roots, tracks like The Waves and Earthly Pleasure saw Conor accompanied by an array of sound; electronic bleeps, distorted guitars and pounding drums, whilst the closing track Rhythm Composer even featured what sounded an awful lot like a pig! It was the sound of a man used to working on his own discovering the joy of being in a band. As Conor himself put it “when I am on my own, it’s like an oil painting, I can put that on top of that and build up layers. But with the band, it turned out more watercolour, you’re leaving white bits of paper exposed, so that nothing is too overworked.”

Based on Darling Arithmetic, it seems Conor has rekindled his love of Oil Paintings.It’s an album that’s just Conor, in his own house, writing, producing and playing the whole thing himself. It must be a slight pain to him that Sufjan Stevens chose to do the same thing, only to release his album, Carrie and Lowell about two weeks before his, the comparison has become an inevitability, even though obviously Conor had already done a Sufjan before “doing a Sufjan” was even a thing. It should also be noted that the production style is about the only thing the two records have in common, whilst Sufjan explored the depth of feelings created by a complicated and at times painful childhood, of loss and grieving, Conor is on entirely different thematic ground.

Darling Arithmetic is an album that on the most basic level is about love. That is not to say it is an album about relationships, or even being in love per se; it is an exploration of the multi-faceted nature of affections for a variety of people in your life, noticeably a lot of the album explores the concept of being able to love yourself and the person that you are. The albums opening statement is the sublime Courage: over a gently plucked acoustic, distant textures courtesy of a mellotron and a simple brushed drum pattern, it’s almost a manifesto for the album that follows. Courage is the sound of Conor sitting the listener down at the bar and preparing us for the tales that will gradually unfurl across the album, “it took a little time to get where I wanted, it took a little time to get free, it took a little time to be honest, it took a little time to me” as opening lines go it’s pretty to the point. He goes on to recall his past lover, “who took a little time to get over”; he lays out how he discovered courage “a feeling like no other”, a feeling that’s “the sweet relief of knowing that nothing comes for free.” He even gives the listener the chance to get out, to not hear the tales that are coming our way, “do you really want to know about the lines on my face? Each and every one is testament to all the mistakes I’ve had to make to find courage.” It’s a fine example of building anticipation for the album that is to follow, the perfect opening track in many ways.

The one slight criticism of the album is that the promised tales that led to the mistakes, aren’t actually all that spectacular, sure there’s some hardship, but it’s a very real kind of hardship, very relatable sure, but not all that surprising or moving. His great explorations of love in all it’s gory details reveal a very sensible, believable and honest story of the ups and downs of the subject, but it’s a series of gentle highs and gentle lows, a walk through the middle ground of emotions with neither crushing failure or ecstatic success. On the second track, Everything I Am Is Yours, over a backdrop of rumbling bass, sparkling piano and gently strummed acoustic, we find Conor giving himself to a relationship, leaving his “demons at the door”; it’s a necessary track for the lyrical flow of the album, laying out the starting point of the story, but his generally downbeat delivery and hushed backing don’t naturally lend themselves to expressing great joy. It might just be personal preference, but to us he’s just more suited to the downbeat, more reflective numbers.

On the albums stand out track, Hot Scary Summer, we’re seeing the cracks appear, Conor noting “this shouldn’t be hard work, least not that kind that makes us half a person, half a monster, stuck together in this hot, scary, summer.” It’s a track with a delightfully nostalgic feel, like a series of polaroids of a relationship just ended, so we get recollections of “kissing on the cobblestones, in the heat of the night and all the pretty young homophobes looking out for a fight”, but each nostalgic snapshot is pinned with a reflection on where we are now, where emotions are still running high, but where the effort to hold it together outweighs the joy it brings. His voice, always a delight, has probably never sounded more broken, it carries a weight of emotion in every strained note, every crack and every howled cry, and it’s an absolute delight.

Musically it’s a superbly crafted, if a somewhat limited palette, perhaps as you’d expect from someone who’s moved out of a full band environment. Conors basic go to sound of fantastically played acoustic, simplistic and stripped drum beats, rich pianos and gentle electronic washes, only varies subtly from track to track, The Soul Serene’s a bit louder, a bit more electronic; the title track has a slightly more jaunty piano, whilst the superb Little Bigot just seems to carry an extra weight of urgency, whether you put that down to the darker lyrical content or the consistent pulse of piano chords. Subtlety is no criticism though, and the musicianship on show is never short of stunning, you just wonder if a couple of tracks might have benefited from the full band treatment.

It’s an album that’s hard to be anything but impressed by; it’s warm, rich, relatable and sonically a delight. There’s just a nagging doubt that it’s a tad too pristine, and a tad too minimal. Is the underlying cause of love not meant to be about passion? With a bit more it could have been a record about love that was easy to love, rather than just a record that easy to admire.

Darling Arithmetic is out now on Domino Records. Villagers are currently on tour throughout the UK.

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