Album Review: Villagers – Where Have You Been All My Life?

I liked Villagers from the moment my friend Susie slipped their debut album into her car CD player as she gave me a lift to the train station one lunchtime in early 2011. The fact that they were effectively a him (Conor O’Brien), that he / they were signed to the ever-dependable Domino Records and that Villagers seemed to be swimming counter to the current of the music industry, delighted the part of me that embraces the well meaning contrariness that dwells in all of us. Simply put, the more I learned about Villagers, the more I liked the cut of their jib.

Imagine then my delight with Villagers fourth studio album, Where Have You Been All My Life? Twelve tracks of gloriously bewitching music which act as a retrospective of their career to this point, without being a compilation, Where Have You Been All My Life? finds O’Brien and his band re-recording material from the previous three albums, as well as a well chosen cover and a song which O’Brien wrote for Charlotte Gainsbourg.

While most acts re-recording old material do so to expand on the original, either by utilising technology that may not have been available at the time of the original recording, or go the full-bananas route and re-record their music with the help of a passing orchestra, Villagers have once again gone in the opposite direction. All twelve of these songs were recorded in the same day, and benefit from the pared back and unfussy sound that they so effectively utilised during their last tour, with minimum overdubs or any reliance on studio trickery. It’s just five individuals heading into the recording studio, laying down the tracks and getting the album in the can. Actually, it turns out that they recorded eighteen tracks that day, and Where Have You Been All My Life? represent the best twelve of those – consider that in contrast to the long and laboured birth pains of most albums these days. As a result, although it’s by and large a serenely laid back album, Where Have You Been All My Life? is an album that pops with spontaneous energy, which is a glorious breath of life-affirming fresh air to those of us who have heard maybe one too many “Dirty Indie Rock and Roll Bands”, who have spent far too long working on their studio tans to produce an album which sounds like every other “Dirty Indie Rock and Roll Band”. Put it this way, Where Have You Been All My Life? is an album that’s smart enough to close with a truly head-turning cover of “Wichita Lineman”, a smart trick which leaves your heart yearning for more.

That’s the beauty of Villagers to me, they produce music which sounds like no one but Villagers and it’s all the better for it. It’s gentle, yet dark. Unsettling, yet welcoming. Stripped back, yet emotionally complex. Fragile, yet utterly reliable in its quality. It’s Villagers music and Where Have You Been All My Life? is a glorious celebration of the songs that O’Brien and his band mates have conscientiously crafted over Villagers career, making it the ideal introduction to their work, as well as being an unsettlingly early bid for album of the year.

Where Have You Been All My Life? is out on Domino on 8 January 2016.

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