Those who have followed singer/songwriter Conor O’Brien’s work from 2010’s Becoming A Jackal to 2013’s Awayland will know it is foolish to underestimate the creative depth of Villagers. And yet, on the surface of things, it is an easy thing to do. A seemingly mild indie-folk band hailing from Ireland and fronted by the baby-faced, tremulous-voiced O’Brien, Villagers’ modest success outside their home country (in which they’ve soared to number 1 every time) has allowed them to fly under the mainstream radar. Last week, alongside the announcement that the band will drop their third full-length album, Darling Arithmetic, in April this year, Villagers fans have been treated to the first album single, “Courage.”
While the lolloping acoustic guitar strums of “Courage” are instantly recognizable as an O’Brien trademark, it is a matter of dark subtlety that sets Villagers apart from their equivalent contemporaries. The innocent folk vibe of the track is punctuated by vaguely unsettling harmonic progressions: the occasional stab of chromaticism, while not wholly uncomfortable, warning us not to let our attention wander amongst the ambling chords. The musical palette is sparse, yet warm, an ambient pad filling the space between the guitar strums and brushed snare beats adding momentum to the latter half.
There is a noticeable maturity in the choice of subject material, too. Recorded at O’Brien’s house (as is his custom), “Courage” feels comfortingly like a quiet heart-to-heart. We listen closer, are drawn deeper, leaning forward out of our seats even as O’Brien reclines comfortably in his armchair. “Do you really want to know about these lines on my face?” he asks, musing on the trial-and-error nature of life. In the midst of this bittersweet folk tune, the vocal is the salve and the lyrics a lifeline; gently offered resilience from one who sounds a little world-weary himself: “All the mistakes I’ve had to make/ To find courage/It’s a feeling like no other, let me tell you.” The melodic chorus is signalled only by the iteration of the title, its delivery thrillingly cracked and fragile, even as the deliverer gathers strength.
In a world of quick fixes and a society obsessed with “happiness,” Conor O’Brien is here to tell us that self-discovery is neither quick nor always happy. But it is also okay. Beautiful, deep and just a little haunting, “Courage” promises a mature, finely crafted and insightful album to come.