Conor O’Brien’s fifth album under the moniker Villagers finds him and an assortment of friends exploring woozy psychedelic soundscapes, experimenting with pitch shifted vocals and jazz on a collection of tracks which simultaneously pay homage to the high romance of ’60s pop and jazz, whilst earnestly reaching forwards.
Some of these forays are sonically surprising but it’s testament to O’Brien that ‘Fever Dreams’ always feels like a natural progression, no matter how unexpected the gambits are.
So Simpatico shimmers like a Sistine Chapel of sound across its seven-minutes as it builds from a simple chiming refrain, adding textured riffs as it slowly builds into an opulent burst of colour – as if Harry Nilsson has run amuck with a harpsichord – culminating in the joyous life affirming refrain of “So simpatico, you are the one for me” before letting the saxophone gleefully run riot.
When call and response vocals declare “the more I know, the more I care”, evoking the feel of Marvin Gaye’s Save The Children. It quickly becomes apparent that this is the pivotal line within the album. Appearing in 3 different tracks, the phrase sums up the unbridled delight and feverish dream of falling head over heels in love with somebody new. It is also a call for people to delve deeper into the world beyond their phone screens and find meaning and purpose within their own lives.
This box fresh feeling is encapsulated perfectly on lead single The First Day, which eases the listener into the new, lush, hippy-pop incarnation of Villagers, which pays as much homage to the dramatic romanticism of ‘60s harmony groups such as the Mamas & the Papas as it does Duke Ellington.
Despite the sweeping nature of much of the material, O’Brien is careful not to overplay his hand and isn’t afraid to rely on simple motifs or allow his bandmates to shine. Momentarily relies on a simple piano riff and showcases the vocals of the new villager in town; Jess Kav, whose silky vocals are a welcome addition throughout ‘Fever Dreams’.
Restless Endeavour wouldn’t be out of place at the height of Thom Yorke’s golden period of pre-millennium tension, while Circles In The Firing Line gets cerebral, taking aim at the “united state of demagogic logic” in what’s likely to be the most unusual rhyme in 2021. This track ends with an unexpected spurt of ’90s garage rock – which may be a nod to his own musical beginnings in The Immediate.
‘Fever Dreams‘ is a quality addition to the Villagers canon. Joyful and exuberant, it finds O’Brien proving himself, once again, to be one of Ireland’s greatest ever songwriters.