The Villagers have done it yet again, releasing yet another astonishing album with their fourth release, The Art Of Pretending To Swim, which as the title suggests focuses as much on life’s obstacles as those finer times. Whilst making songwriting sound like a fluid and simple process, Conor O’Brien has more of a progressive sound to this LP, following more of a multi-faceted approach.  The Art Of Pretending To Swim, for it’s new-found soulfulness, and aural instrumental builds, emitting emotion, possibly has to be my personal favourite of the Villagers catalogue of releases. Nuanced, as we note lyrical themes of fear and hope in a formidable age, there are always new layers to peel when listening to this album, with further hidden meaning to be got at.

Written, produced, mixed and primarily performed by Conor O’Brien in his studio in Dublin, The Art Of Pretending To Swim outlines O’Brien’s skills in several areas of music, and it’s always that songwriting that hits me, lyrically uninterrupted, pin-pointing these difficult times, on top of all the rest. But this may come as no surprise, as O’Brien has a string of accolades under his belt including two Ivor Novello Awards (the most recent being 2016’s Album Award for Darling Arithmetic). Having seen them perform in Reykjavik as part of Iceland Airwaves, I’ve had them on my radar for several years now, and with this album, it would appear that they have peaked.  Instrumentally, there appears more of an up-tempo vibe to this record, however contemplative the lyrics.

Conor’s vocals are as delicately fragile as ever, and I hate to say it but at times recall Simply Red and Mick Hucknall. Again, a culmination of sounds, The Art Of Pretending To Swim is more than an art of pretending to make music, he truly can. Incorporating stunning folk-pop melodies with synthesised, industrial noises there is an eclectic flavour to this record, and it certainly captures and accents different moods. Sweet Saviour has a touch of the cruel and the kind to it when you consider the lyrics, “I’ve been loving you now for what seems like eternity, sweet saviour don’t do this to me.” Long Time Waiting is wonderfully contemplative, “my will is strong but it is starting to break, there is only so much a body can take.” Fool, however, has darker tones to it, “the future has been written but the pen ran out of ink, the dopamine is dripping into the kitchen ink.”  Love Came With All That It Brings is a haunting track with an instrumental build, focussing not purely on the joy that love can bring, the soulful backing vocals and brass marking this a standout track. Real Go-Getter is a wondrous pulsating, yet jaunty track incorporating industrial sounds, indicative of the highs and lows of life, “there is only one way and it’s always up and it’s always tough.” Hold Me Down, a more poignant lullaby, with a delicate string section, and Ada finishes the album off nicely with a stripped down ballad of which we are accustomed to with Conor. A beautifully written, produced and compiled album, a must for any Villagers fan, even the tentative ones.

The Art Of Pretending To Swim is available now, via Domino Records.