Album reviews

12

A review of the album Becoming A Jackal by Villagers

Review Snapshot: Despite the huge weight of expectation, Conor O'Brien delivers possibly the finest Irish record you'll hear this year in the shape of Becoming A Jackal.

The Cluas Verdict? 9 out of 10

Villagers - Becoming A Jackal

Full Review: It's difficult not to feel sorry for Conor O'Brien. Dude's only a slip of a thing and yet he has to deal with me putting the entire weight of my musical expectations for 2010 on his shoulders.  That said, with Becoming A Jackal, O'Brien has set himself apart from the pack. There's a tenderness and a craftsmanship at play here that is as rare as it is beautiful and for that reason alone O'Brien and his Villagers should be considered a national treasure.

Opening with 'I Saw the Dead', Villagers set the scene for an album whose veins are coursing with isolation and fear and yet whose mind is set on hope and regeneration.  Such is the epic nature of 'I Saw the Dead', a song that calls to mind everything from 'A Day In The Life' to Elliott Smith's 'Whatever (Some Folk Song in C)', it almost deserves a review of its own. My only warning is that the end can be quite terrifying if you're listening to it alone late at night.

It is quickly followed by 'Becoming A Jackal', a song that captures the raw emotive energy that O'Brien taps into better than any of his contemporaries.  Themes of loneliness and falling apart are evident on tracks like 'Home' - the song Roy Orbison should have written when he sat down to pen 'I Drove All Night', 'The Meaning of the Ritual' - more orchestral and moving than its version on the Hollow Kind EP and 'Pieces' - a song that should bring considerable comfort to anyone who has ever felt like they were about to fall apart.

It's difficult to have complaints about an album that feels as satisfying as Becoming A Jackal.  However, I can imagine that O'Brien's constant use of rhyming couplets could grate on repeated listen and the inclusion of 'The Pact (I'll be your Fever)' - a song that could well be the theme tune to a new reality show that sees a Irish family stranded on a desert island, calypso indie pop anyone? - is odd, especially at the expense of songs like 'The Sun is Hanging from a String' or 'Down, Under the Sea'.

Overall though, this is a work of real beauty and understated genius. The influences of Neil Young and Elliott Smith - especially in the multi-layered vocals that are used in a number of songs - are not ones that I'd heard in any of Villagers' live performances.

This is, for me, the most beautiful collection of songs you're likely to hear this year. Free from the constraints of the 'too many cooks' nature of The Immediate, O'Brien is allowed to soar. In his own words: 'When I grew bolder/out onto the streets I flew/released from your shackles/I danced with the jackals/and learned a new way to move.' And what an accomplished way that is.

Steven O'Rourke


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