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Music Review: Darling Arithmetic

Special to The Chronicle
Special to The Chronicle

by Eliza Strong

“How did I get here?/ Am I ever gonna get back?” asks Conor O’Brien, subtly addressing just how much he has risked—emotionally and professionally— with his new album, Darling Arithmetic, a significant and brave move for the artist to have made.

Released Apr. 10th, this marks Villagers’ third record. The album’s style, performed and produced by O’Brien alone, is a surprising move for the group. Villagers began as a solo act with Becoming a Jackal, released in 2010, and expanded to a well-received, dynamically realized collaboration for 2013’s {Awayland}. Instead of exploring the musical potential of the full band further—which {Awayland} seems hardly to have plumbed the depths of—O’Brien reverted back to an inward-facing album. Darling Arithmetic is a subtle, muted and soothing exploration of O’Brien’s emotions as he navigates coming out and finding peace with himself in the wake of a turbulent, painfully secretive relationship. While he hasn’t taken the band in the prescribed, expected direction, the album is both intimate and unpretending, and has a natural quality to it that makes it feel not contrarian but inevitable.

“Courage,” the aptly named and chosen first track, starts off with these words: “It took a little time/ To get where I wanted/ It took a little time/ To get free/ It took a little time to be honest/ It took a little time to be me.” O’Brien’s words are loaded with meaning—he is telling listeners what it feels like to finally be open about his sexuality, to open himself up to a relationship and to produce a record like this, in which he has laid his soul bare without the filter of a full band. “Courage—it’s a feeling like no other, let me tell you,” he croons, sounding tentatively confident, yet haunted by a long history of introverted torment over his identity, something even harder for him to confront than heartbreak.

The record gathers momentum in subsequent tracks, developing confidence alongside O’Brien himself. “Everything I Am Is Yours” speaks not to a subset of the population but rather to the universal human experience of giving oneself to another completely and risking the pain of relationships. It is beautifully honest and completely relatable, carried on a current of accepting lamentation for love lost. O’Brien’s lyrics occasionally wax sentimental, especially on this track, but elsewhere he shows genuine songwriting chops, as on “The Soul Serene.” He sings fantastically crafted lines like, “As I try to figure out what it all means/ And I find chameleon dreams in my mind” and “Took a little ride on the carousel/ When will it end? I can never tell/ Keep spinning to the soul serene.”

This and “Hot Scary Summer” are emotional exhalations, which seep directly from O’Brien’s guitar and lush vocals through the skin and into the bones. Even without lyrics, these songs would be able to tell their story of contemplation, joy and anguish. His words enhance the emotive power of his melodies, with dreamy images like “steady sunlight” and admissions of discomfort like “something tells me all is not as it seems.”

“Dawning On Me” is mixed perfectly, with just the right combination of tinkling piano, softly treading percussion and strumming, complex acoustic guitar to generate a stunning arrangement. This song sets up one of the most important elements of Darling Arithmetic, which is a skeletal, unadorned style that not only looks good on O’Brien, but is the only way he can properly convey his message. This record needed to be spartan in order to give the depth of O’Brien’s emotions and experiences space to expand and breathe. “Darling Arithmetic,” the title track, exhibits this most impressively and is perhaps the quietest and saddest on the album. “If ours was a dream/ A phantom, a sacred scheme/ Then how did it end so quick?” he sings with throat-tightening gravitas. It is one of the truest, most identifiable breakup tracks on the current music scene.

“Little Bigot” picks up the tempo, and, without it, this record might have fallen flat into soft self-pity. There is a sense of an emotion other than grieving reflectiveness, but it’s difficult to place just what that is. It has a touch of anger, of hot emotion, that emerges through lyrics as well as song structure, giving the impression that O’Brien understands introspection and heartbreak don’t all happen alone behind a rain-soaked window.

O’Brien rounds off the record nicely with “No One to Blame” and “So Naïve,” which are both undeniably pretty. This record could not have been any longer without repeating itself; O’Brien has edited himself well, rendering this a lovely, deep breath before whatever might be in store next. {Awayland} scratched the surface of Villagers’ capability for lush, unforgettable sound and Darling Arithmetic demonstrated O’Brien’s eloquent immersion into intimacy between himself and his audience—one can hope that a subsequent record will find some sublime balance between these two.


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