Review Summary: O'Brien debuts strong
Villagers' Conor O’Brien may share a few common characteristics with Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst, but don’t allow that fact to let you write this Dublin project off as a watered-down version of the latter. While, yes, their names and physical appearances may be quite similar – O’Brien even says he’s a “hamster sized version
" of the Nebraska songwriter – there’s a vitriolic undertone disposed here on O’Brien’s Villagers debut, Becoming a Jackal
, that gives us evidence of a sinister second life that belongs to what appears to be a polite and modest Irishman on the surface, from which his creative side finds refuge and pumps fuel for fire - a kind of back alley housing of black market wares that Oberst has yet to discover, or at least has even tried to. Remember Eyes’ shoddy garbage debut that was 1998’s A Collection Of Songs Written And Recorded '95-'97
? Yes, comparatively, Becoming a Jackal
places O’Brien well ahead of the game as far as a progression of quality goes, starting on a great note rather than a poor one.
O’Brien’s not one to wallow in the depths of despair - or at least his music doesn’t sound
like he does. First proper single and title track is a sunny pop hit, infectious and gravitating to the realm of the Beach Boys or Jens Lekman’s happier interior of pennings. The interesting part about a number of his songs, or certainly the most ironic, is how O'Brien dresses his brutally honest and often negative subjects with a coat of splendor and a shiny light-weight mood. On the single he waves a fleeting “you should wonder what I’m taking from you / how I benefit from you being here
” nonchalantly, as if “while [he’s] selling you [his] fears
” you service him more than he services you by listening. It’s clear evidence of catharsis for the artist who’s been upset with the prior disbanding of his past band, The Immediate, further expounding on the hint with the rest of the Becoming a Jackal
as it progresses, all at the emotional risk of the rest of us. God, I love
an honest musician!
He goes on further to write “a love song that [isn’t] positive about the idea of love
” in the down-and-out rolling beats of “Ship of Promises”, O’Brien telling us how it really
is with the game of hearts, mixing Flaming Lips-esque string arrangements and unconventional guitar tones into the mix: “So I’ll meet you in between what I say and what I mean, and we will make our own mess
.” Like this particular cut, O’Brien finds a strong balance of abstraction and upfront, confrontational musings on a number of the tracks on Becoming a Jackal
- “The Meaning of the Ritual”, “That Day”, “The Pact (I’ll Be Your Fever)” – but he loses his meaning, and the rest of us, on such wayward ventures as that of the piano, puff-drummer “Home”, with its disproportionate family tale – containing something about a snake and a saint as well – and sole acoustic closer “To Be Counted”, an otherwise strong song that falters in the end because of O’Brien’s ambiguous, seemingly undecided views on the afterlife that are better left unvoiced (for now, at least).
What might have been the better closer, barring the fact that the song breaks the barriers or rules of operation that seem to frame Becoming a Jackal
, is “Pieces”, the most upfront that O’Brien gets on this album. Deceivingly starting on a sleezy, blues-run of piano notes, the song enters O’Brien mournfully lamenting his deprived mental condition in very much that same way that Arcade Fire’s Win Butler might have recorded circa 2003: “You just split yourself in two / One for them and one for you
.” It’s not until a animal-like howling ensues (!) at the end of the track during a build-up that the album climaxes in the most fitting, yet conversely not-so-fitting, way possible – i.e. presumably the language of the jackal, O’Brien becoming the product of ten tracks filled with personal disclosure and honest confessions. On closer inspection of the themes of honesty and change in the album, this is O’Brien’s way of poking fun at the pervading lies
that seem to be all around us these days, demanding we ask the question: Is the truth really that ugly
I’d like O’Brien to expound on that in the coming years himself, actually, as well as become more comfortable with which and how he uses his lyrical topics. That withstanding, O’Brien has debuted strong here on Becoming a Jackal
, crafting light and fluffy songwriter nuggets that easily remind of Jens Lekman, David Axelrod, Rufus Wainwright, and yes, even Conor Oberst. The themes and ideas here are voiced rather originally, if abstractly, and the musical arrangements are light-hearted, ironic in context of the themes, and brimming with likable hooks and smooth vocal melodies. Please leave the Blunts and Johnsons behind if you will; we need more of O’Brien’s type in the singer-songwriter field.