Where Have You Been All My Life? Villagers Re-imagined at the WAC

Villagers, a band very much defined by their frontman, Conor O’Brien, released their first album in 2010. Becoming a Jackal had its own little promotional poster in HMV, and I bought it to impress my new friend Grace. It was the second album I ever spent money on, and I put it on my mp3 player (a Creative Zen Stone!) immediately. That anecdote tells you everything you need to know about where I was, musically, when I was thirteen.

I have Villagers to thank for a lot; not least the realization that I could actually find the music that I liked myself. Becoming a Jackal is an amazing debut album. It opened my eyes to the fact that a good album does not necessarily have to be a sad album, and not every song has to be about love. Sure, Villagers do write about love – just not exclusively.

That first album and its follow ups, {Awayland} and Darling Arithmetic, have underscored a lot of bus journeys in the six years since then. They are albums that exist in a very self-contained way, each song like a jigsaw puzzle piece fitting neatly together. Their most recent album was released last April, so I was surprised and delighted to see Where Have You Been All My Life hit the shelves in January.

The album is a reworking of songs from all of Villagers’ albums, performed live but audience-less at the RAK. Some of them, chiefly those from the earlier albums, are radically transformed. These turned out to be some of my favourites in the set. I especially loved the changes made to “Set the Tigers Free”. On the original album, the syncopated rhythm contrasts sharply with the songs on either side of it. That rhythm lends a distinctive feel to the song, but it’s completely abandoned in the 2016 version. The melody is slowed down and the refrain tune is lengthened and sustained. It makes for a different experience, but a lovely one.

WHYBAML‘s instrumentation is ethereal and eerie, but not insubstantial. Electric guitars are the root of the music, although it is still less electronic than {Awayland}. “Memoir”, a song written by O’Brien for someone else, is punchy and uptempo. The choral parts highlight just how lonely are the lyrics that he sings solo, and his falsetto adds to the haunting atmosphere. Desperation builds with the words Take my body/take it from me/it is not worthy of your memory and it doesn’t resolve itself.

The thing about the best Villagers songs is that they are simultaneously sad and happy, strange and scary and beautiful. They move me in ways that I can’t really express. One of the things I appreciate most about them is their willingness to write songs about friendship – how rare! How important it is, to be able to vocalize that feeling of grateful security with your friends:

And we’ll drink to the gentle, and meek and the kind
And the funny little flaws in this earthly design
From the Reeperbahn to the Sundarbahn
I will heed your call from the dust and the sand
And I’ll save all my stories for thee

Villagers aren’t exactly a famous band in Ireland, but neither are they completely unknown. It was a bit unbelievable to see our local little arts center on their tour posters. My mother, who liked the first album very much but hasn’t listened to the other three, thought at first that it must be a tribute band. It would be weird, though, to have a Villagers tribute band do a four-country tour, so – well, it must have been them. We bought tickets for my parents and I (I am the coolest teen in the world), and then I kind of forgot about it because so far this year my life has consisted only of taking down study notes onto flashcards and crying at the Daily Show. But then, almost without warning, we were at the Wexford Arts Centre staring up at the very real, very much non-tribute-band Conor O’Brien, and we were watching Villagers.

Villagers know how to perform. They played for almost two hours, and never seemed to flag or tire of the songs they were singing. Darling Arithmetic is a more personal album, with love songs more to the fore, and they’re beautiful live. The instrumentals were flawless, and what was really amazing to me was how clear Conor O’Brien’s voice is. It’s exactly like it sounds on the CDs. What you can’t get from the recordings, though, is how emotional his performance is. O’Brien gives – appears to give, anyway – his all to every song. He believes in what he says, and I felt and believed it too. To see Conor O’Brien standing up there with his guitar, singing I’ve been awake for so long now/and all I can see/is the light of your love/you’ve been dawning on me is, in my humble opinion, to be very, very lucky.

I think Where Have You Been All My Life is an album that is enhanced enormously by seeing it live. There is an understanding of what Villagers was trying to do with this album that I could only grasp when I saw it. The most powerful moment of this show was when they played “Hot Scary Summer”, “Little Bigot”, “Occupy Your Mind”, and “The Waves”, in that order. These songs are all about prejudice and hatred in one form or another. “Hot Scary Summer” particularly moved me; a surprising, beautiful song about modern homophobia and its consequences. Now I live inside you/and you live in me/and nothing’s gonna change that dear, he sang, eyes closed, looking angelic. We got good at pretending/and then pretending got us good. How did he take that feeling, crystallize it, and turn it into such a short and powerful phrase? All I can say is that I felt something melt and then solidify in my chest, looking at him, listening. He gets it. “Occupy Your Mind” was another star, a sneaky, funny little song released after anti-homosexuality laws were passed in Russia. To hear it live was so intense – that guitar line thumping! The whole (tiny) room was buzzin’! (I wish I could offer a synonym for buzzin’, but I can’t.)

O’Brien finished up with “No One To Blame”, which ends on an amazing little ethereal hook that I can’t really describe but that makes my heart hurt thinking about it. There’s a window in your eyes/a kind of swimming pool for swimming fools like me/oh, Mister Mystery.

The encore was the most intimate and wonderful thing I have experienced in my life. He smiled, shy, and opened up with I am the lineman of the county… “Wichita Lineman”! I had hardly dared hope, and it was beautiful.

After the show, we saw Conor hanging around outside at the merch stand, and I hid behind my mother (I can get very starstruck). My father got him to sign a ticket for me: it says to Claire love Conor, and it is worth more to me than anything in the universe. And then somehow I was meeting him, and I shook his hand and squeaked out something like long time fan and basically ran away into the January night. I have only now got over the embarrassment.

Since the gig, I have been floating on air. Nothing can bring me down. I have not listened to “Hot Scary Summer” since, nor will I, because no experiencing of it will ever again be so perfect or beautiful.


Claire Cullen is an 18-year-old who lives in Ireland. Recently she has been dealing with Hamilton-related problems, and it’s probably best not to get her started on why. Dedicated to furthering the Liberal Agenda.

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