Villagers – The Art of Pretending to Swim

Villagers’ arrival on the scene back in 2010 came at a fortuitous time. While acoustic-based music was doing well in the charts (with the likes of Mumford and Sons and Ed Sheeran dismantling them for their own pleasure), the Irish band rode the wave and came out with a Mercury Prize nomination and a whole load of excitable new fans. Those fans have stayed, showcased by their upcoming sold-out show at The Old Market, but the music has certainly changed. If the likes of Becoming a Jackal and {Awayland} were their commercial successes, The Art of Pretending to Swim is their Sgt Pepper or Pet Sounds. Experimental and whimsical, with enough to anchor it down in the here and the now, it’s an absolute triumph of an album.

Of course, it’s still steeped in that heavenly melancholia that made their earlier albums so well-renowned, but there’s a maturity to the band’s music now. There’s a touch of electronica, with a beautiful synth-lining that inherently lifts the sound from chart-ready pop, into an experimental new direction. With excellent production values from frontman Conor O’Brien – who’s proving himself to be a real leader for the band – it’s an incredibly technical project with bounteous layers to explore.

Much like the Bon Iver revolution (from ‘Skinny Love’ to Kanye West’s favourite collaborator), The Art of Pretending to Swim sets out its stool early. ‘Again’ showcases the loop-heavy sounds made famous by Justin Vernon, but with O’Brien’s trademark wistful vocals. Nevertheless, this could be a shock to the system for fans of their earlier work but, as the record advances and evolves, it becomes clear it’s a fully-fledged sound that’s here to stay. Meanwhile, with lead single, ‘A Trick of the Light’, the Beach Boys analogy becomes more clear. As melody goes, there isn’t anyone much better than Conor O’Brien.

There’s a spiritual tenebrosity to The Art of Pretending to Swim, which emanates from O’Brien’s deft use of linguistic and dejected imagery. “When it’s a battle just to get out of bed”, and: “There’s only so much a body can take” from ‘Long Time Waiting’ inspire distressing signals. O’Brien is pouring his heart out here, and placing it directly on his sleeve. “There’s an ocean in my body / And there’s a river in my soul / And I’m crying,” he sings on ‘A Trick of the Light’, opening himself up for dissection. There’s an exposure to O’Brien – and The Art of Pretending To Swim – which makes it all the more charming, authentic, and poignant.

There’s something of the cinematic about Villagers’ fifth album. The Art of Pretending to Swim is all-encompassing; subsequently a wistful, whimsical journey through the mind of O’Brien and a swirling saga that half recalls Americana folk and half the gruelling darkness of a Nick Cave and Warren Ellis film score. This is easily the best Villagers record and, five albums and eight years in, that’s incredibly impressive.

Liam McMillen