Not to be confused with Village People or any other village-associated musical acts (there’s a surprising number of them), Villagers is a Dublin-based folk band that has yet to sing the letters “YMCA” on any stage; it’s also something we’re not expecting anytime soon. Part of the band’s charm is their timidity, reflected in both frontman Conor O’Brien’s soft baby blues and a hushed reluctance to step out from behind impersonal metaphors. Their lyrics have always made the group just appropriately mysterious without being annoying, but with their latest, Darling Arithmetic, Villagers creep tentatively from the shadows.
O’Brien has admitted to hiding behind his music in the past, but the rawness of Darling Arithmetic, is something that he claims just “fell out.” The album was recorded in O’Brien’s own home, where he also played every instrument. If that doesn’t make it intimate enough, O’Brien also adopts more “I” and “me” pronouns on the album, making the artist more vulnerable than ever. This results in an album that is more instrumentally mellow than previous records, but also lyrically bolder than anything we’ve seen from Villagers before.
Staying true to the genre’s tendencies, O’Brien sings mostly about love and relationships, but this album addresses the two topics in favor of homosexuality as well. A social topic all of us are familiar with, homosexuality is something we still don’t see often in the music world, but O’Brien looks to change that as delicately as possible. “Hot Scary Summer” initially sounds like a forlorn break up song, and at its core, it’s just that (“this shouldn’t be hard work, at least not the kind that makes us half a monster, half a person”). A quick back story and slight shift in tone after the chorus, however, emphasizes a greater issue; a regrettable need to “pretend” because of the “pretty young homophobes looking out for a fight.” It’s a detail so subtly hidden amongst ideas of other common relationship problems, it’s easy to overlook. Yet, it’s moments like this that make Darling Arithmetic so great. Rather than making the entire record some sort of political statement, O’Brien sheds a layer of shyness with each gentle pluck of a guitar string and tickle of a piano key, nestling a taboo topic comfortably where it belongs: out in the open and without altercation.
Save for a few moments of awkward turbulence, Darling Arithmetic flows relatively smoothly from start to finish. Most tracks seem to pick up where the previous left off, while still possessing enough charming intricacies to allow each song to stand on its own. “Courage” sets the stage for the confessional album that lies ahead, while “Little Bigot” follows “Hot Scary Summer” almost as a joke. More upbeat and far less cryptic, O’Brien dares the listener to throw all hate “on the fire.” Heavy piano hands make the song momentarily menacing, but a funky guitar reassures us of his good intentions, and we smile at O’Brien’s surprising humor.
Darling Arithmetic is an album that was created to challenge the artist. Rather than collaborating with his usual band members, O’Brien locked himself in his home and worked relentlessly as songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist. He grasped for a transparency that was lacking in previous records, saying, “I’m going to be really simple and clear about the way I feel right now and whatever comes out comes out.” The result is an encouraging collection of honest lyrics and romantic guitar melodies from a man that can influence great change with a single, tender hand.