Hailing from Dublin, Ireland, Villagers is the critically acclaimed brainchild of thirty-something Conor J. O’Brien. Although the outfit has been around since 2008, it’s REALLY been around since the 2010 album Becoming A Jackal became bonkers popular and jettisoned the band onto an exhaustive tour that lasted for two years.
In a 2013 interview with Neil McCormick of The Telegraph, frontman O’Brien discussed tour fatigue and his struggles as a songwriter, criticizing his post-tour work as lacking in depth. He ruminated, “I felt, in a very childish way, I had romanticized sadness, and I was using the music to wallow.” This is understandable given the fact that he was coping with a family tragedy, but it’s also a common occurrence; how often have we penned a poem or sought a song for immersion, to validate our feelings but also give them authenticity in a time of crisis? Particularly with the loss of a loved one, it’s sometimes hard to let the pain go because, in doing so, it feels as though you’re that much further from the one you lost.
His newest work, however, shows a remarkable amount of maturity–one that uses loss as an underpinning instead of as a focal point. While the overarching tenor of Darling Arithmetic is pensive and bends toward sadness, it never actually breaks under the weight. True, the album has its melancholic valleys (“No One To Blame”), but it also peaks frequently with optimism as the lyrics offer measured notes of hope. Not the kind of hope that grows blindly in a vacuum of naiveté, but one that is fought for and found, one that pays homage to and draws strength from the paths we forge together and sometimes alone. In “Courage”, the album’s opening track, O’Brien sings:
Do you really want to know about these lines on my face? Well each and every one is testament to all the mistakes I’ve had to make to find…Courage, it’s a feeling like no other, let me tell you, yeah. Courage, in harmony with something other than your ego. Courage, the sweet relief of knowing nothing comes for free.
In that same Telegraph interview, O’Brien relates how he came out of his writing slump by using synthetic instruments and experimenting with “ambient soundscapes.” Most poignantly, he notes his inspiration from Carl Sagan “to put the story of the evolution of human intelligence into a personal perspective.” This, perhaps more than any other sentence, describes his effort on Darling Arithmetic for me. Whether describing a hot scary summer or chameleon dreams, the full breadth of the human experience can be found somewhere on this album if you’re receptive to looking because, in a very intimate and personal way, this album is about being part of something much bigger than ourselves.
Throughout listening I could not help but to recall the words of a favorite poet, W.H. Auden, in his poem The More Loving One, which I’ll leave you with here to chew on:
Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.
How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.
Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.
Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.