New Villagers Album ‘Fever Dreams’ Continues a Legacy of Deconstructing Genre Norms

New Villagers Album ‘Fever Dreams’ Continues a Legacy of Deconstructing Genre Norms

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In 2010, when Conor O’Brien unveiled Villagers to the world with Becoming a Jackal, the U.K. press ran out of superlatives while the debut was shortlisted for the prestigious Mercury Prize and Choice Music Prize (the second of which Villagers won with their sophomore release {Awayland}).  O’Brien came out prior to the release of his third album, Darling Arithmetic, a folksy meditation on gay love that picked up the Ivor Novello award for Best Album. When it comes to garlands, heavy is the head that wears the accolades. Or something like that.

Villagers’ fifth record, Fever Dreams, starts out fuzzy — like waking with a bad hangover or jumping up from a startling nightmare — and gets stranger and more mysteriously beguiling from there. My adoration of Darling Arithmetic — Villagers’ most candid set of tunes — had made me a temporary amnesiac to what got O’Brien noticed in the first place, which was an unhurried and dogged refusal to kowtow to the specifications of any genre. Those first few records were stunning though hard to parse — cryptic, lyrical, impenetrable. Darling Arithmetic was emotionally open, the sound of vulnerability.

Conor O’Brien

But the new Villagers album Fever Dreams remains brazenly direct while continuing the sonic envelope-pushing of The Art of Pretending to Swim from 2018. He’d already had most of the album recorded with his band when lockdown happened. “I remember when [the pandemic] began, there was a meme going around that said, ‘check in on your extrovert friends,’” he has said. “I’m not an extrovert and in a way the forced time alone really suited me. I understand the creative power of solitude.”

So, he went to work doing what he had always done best: deconstructing and rebuilding, challenging the norms, discovering the source of his creative joy with the oddest of bedfellows.

The First Day,” which opens the new Villagers album properly after the smudge of “Something Bigger,” borrows indie ballad guitar distortion to muss up the gentle love lyric until the Van Morrison horns arrive and punch up the song’s soulful underpinning. Current single “So Simpatico” is a seven-minute mid-tempo jubilation that breaks for a sultry sax run through a simple chorus that ends with the repetition of the song’s mantra: “the more I know, the more I care.”

The vaguely political “Circles in the Firing Line” feels like a gentle summer stroll until it breaks down into a punkish denouement that fades into a jet’s takeoff. And the title track is a gentle lullaby that practically evaporates before a chorus of different speakers, their voices digitally altered, speak the same mantra again from “So Simpatico.”

“The more I know, the more I care” is a lyric so simple it’s classic. It echoes across the chasms of Fever Dreams — the tender-hearted laments for love in a world that’s now demanding isolation and the darkest recesses of that solitude. For O’Brien, this had nothing to do with the pandemic — these songs were nearly finished — and more to do with how we were living before.

“I feel the internet age is changing the way we’re thinking quite profoundly,” he has said. “Our concentration spans, the way we connect, the way we consume art, it’s had an impact on all of us.”

I doubt the world will hear the beauty of this new Villagers album through all the competing noise, but if you follow the dream logic of the tracks’ running order (you know, listening to a record from beginning to end, imagine that), you may find yourself tuning into O’Brien’s strikingly optimistic worldview.

Or, as he himself has said, “I’ve started to realize that music is just about affecting the individual and the person listening to it, you have to sing to the individual. You’re not singing to a large crowd of people; you’re singing to somebody’s mind and how they process it.”

The new Villagers album Fever Dreams is out now.

Photos by Rich Gilligan

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