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Villagers: Darling Arithmetic Review

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Villagers: <i>Darling Arithmetic</i> Review

By the third time through, the nine songs on Villagers’ new album sound like you’ve known them all your life. Darling Arithmetic isn’t as immediately gripping as Becoming a Jackal, Conor O’Brien’s 2010 debut as Villagers, or as ornately arranged as the 2013 follow-up, {Awayland}, but O’Brien’s latest is easily his richest work so far. That’s largely because the Irish singer has never been so forthright. O’Brien writes lyrics with a novelist’s eye for subtle detail, honing his songs into tight, lean narratives that are often at their most personal, and revealing, on Darling Arithmetic.

It’s an album about love and relationships, and O’Brien takes the opportunity to refer publicly for the first time to his own sexuality. He’s oblique about it on opener “Courage,” his voice quiet and introspective over strummed acoustic guitar as he sings, “It took a little time to be honest/ It took a little time to be me.” What he means by that becomes clearer on “Hot Scary Summer.” The heat and a sense menace are almost palpable as he dissects a romance broken under the weight of fear and social opprobrium. “Remember kissing on the cobblestones in the heat of the night/ With all the pretty young homophobes looking out for a fight?” O’Brien asks in a measured tone that hints at his anguish when his lover tells him, “This shouldn’t be hard work.” The singer is even more direct a few songs later on “Little Bigot” when he insists, “Love is all, love is real, love is true,” murmuring over a repeating acoustic guitar pattern, ripples of piano and a swift brushed-drum beat.

Not every song on Darling Arithmetic is so specific. The catchy, compact “Dawning on Me” compares love to the morning sun, while “No One to Blame” is a torchy relationship post-mortem full of self-recriminatory lyrics that O’Brien delivers over spare piano chords. He played all the instruments on the album himself, and his musical arrangements are tasteful and subtle without fail. The singer has a knack for pairing acoustic guitar parts with bright piano that lends an unsettling sensation to many of the songs: piano on “Everything I Am Is Yours” glints like the blade of a knife, and it undercuts the romance of “Dawning on Me” with a hint of melancholy.

O’Brien ends the album on an uncharacteristically confessional note with “So Naïve.” “I believe that I’m part of something bigger,” he sings over faint, minimal accompaniment on guitar. On the one hand, that’s true: Villagers has become a key part of the ongoing indie-folk movement. On the other hand, Darling Arithmetic shows that O’Brien exists in a world unto himself.

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