Album Review: Villagers – Becoming A Jackal

Just out in the UK and with the US release timed for June 8th, Becoming A Jackal by Villagers is already a No 1 album in the artiste’s homeland of Ireland. Despite the band name, which conjures up an image of a rambling, stage-crowding sect, in fact this is singularly the work of one young guy, who goes by the overtly literary title of Conor J. O’Brien. There’s something about placing an initial in your name in this way that stamps you as someone to be taken seriously. Just take a look at any random academic journal. On a quite different plane, O’Brien could have been a shoe-in if he’d been around when they cast Frodo’s mates in Lord Of The Rings. He has that dark faerie look about him, part urchin, with the sharp eyes of a seer.

Chastened by the break-up of his previous band, The Immediate, O’Brien went on to play all the instruments on Villagers’ debut other than the strings and French horn. These were arranged by key player Cormac Curran, who is part of the band that augments O’Brien live when the singer is not appearing solo. The album has been delivered under a welter of expectation and industry buzz. It will be one of those records which will be bought simply because it is cool to like, though if that sounds cynical, the album has undoubted merits, too. Villagers find its spiritual home on Domino Records, the cool UK indie label that found fortune and fame with Arctic Monkeys. By strange coincidence, O’Brien claims to have penned his first song, aged just 12, a week after his elder brother lent him his acoustic guitar. The first lyric went “When I’m walking down these streets / I feel like a monkey in the Arctic”. The song, appropriately called “Psychic”, was about feeling afraid of a psychic friend because he could read your thoughts. Too right, brother.

A glance down the song titles of Becoming A Jackal suggests you may be in for more of the same. “I Saw The Dead”, “Ship Of Promises”, “The Meaning Of The Ritual”, Twenty-Seven Strangers” …you get the drift. You don’t need to be psychic, though, to appreciate that O’Brien is hitting the ground running with two strong openers, “I Saw The Dead” followed by the title track. The first starts musically akin to a spider weaving a delicate though ultimately dense web. A faint swirl of organ, joined by ghostly violin and melodramatic piano heralds a spectral lyric: “Have you got just a minute/Are you easily led/Let me show the backroom/Where I saw the dead/Dancing like children on a midsummer morn/And they asked me to join.” The song rises and falls as it takes you on a nightmarish journey of realization.

The emotive title song mixes metaphors in its verses with an almost singalong chorus and a biting sting in the tail: “So before you take this song as truth/You should wonder what I’m taking from you/How I benefit from you being here/Lending me your ears/While I’m selling you my fears.” Less successful is the urgent “Ship of Promises” where the insistent drums rather overstay their welcome, while the heartfelt emotions of “Pieces” are rather nullified by the overindulgence of the final minute of howling vocals and dischords. O’Brien hits the spot much more on the gently anthemic “The Meaning Of The Ritual” and in the poignant musings of “Home”, which is also lit up by some welcome backing vocals.

Musically the album plays the variety card pretty well. You get the Springsteen-esque “That Day” alongside the light sixties pop tones of “The Pact” and the wistful observational folk of “Twenty-seven Strangers”.  The understated warmth of “Set The Tigers Free” provides an unassuming high spot in this collection of largely adventurous songs. Comparisons have been drawn with Elliott Smith, especially on the stripped bare closer, “To Be Counted Among Men”, and with Conor Oberst in the artiste’s moments of angst. O’Brien’s diction is very deliberate and also recalls that of fellow Irishman, the ex-Undertones front man, Fergal Sharkey. At other times, O’Brien’s Irishness takes on a more transatlantic ring.

Becoming A Jackal is very much a coming-of-age record, centering around change in its many shapes and guises. It’s at times haphazard, echoing the way O’Brien puts together his lyrics and charges his music with some unexpected maneuvers. Some work and some don’t, but the overall result is impressive and richly promising. This is an album that will make you want to hear the next one.


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