Villagers Are Modern Day Adult Contemporary Music
Villagers' music is pleasant and easy to listen to without being simple, and has catchy melodies that don't reach the level of massive pop hooks.
The Art of Pretending to Swim
21 September 2018
In the recent past, maybe before 2010 or so, Villagers (neé Conor O'Brien) could conceivably be labeled as an Adult Contemporary act. O'Brien's music is pleasant and easy to listen to without being simple. He has catchy melodies that don't reach the level of massive pop hooks. And he uses a variety of instruments while sticking largely to a core of guitar, bass, and drums. The Art of Pretending to Swim is exactly the kind of album the theoretical middle-aged listener that the Adult Contemporary radio format (or its '90s offshoot, Adult Alternative) could get behind.
Now we'd probably call Villagers "indie pop" (Aside: So close! Both Allmusic and Wikipedia call him "indie folk"), but neither description fits his music pretty comfortably. First single "Trick of the Light" demonstrates this aptly. Quiet acoustic guitar and slightly funky bass fit together with a simple drumbeat, while O'Brien croons like a slightly subdued Adam Levine. The chorus is almost entirely vocal-driven, as the song's main groove doesn't change at all. The only time the song adjusts is during the slightly airier, darker bridge, at the end of which O'Brien hums in tremolo and is subtly replaced by a theremin, which hangs around in the background once the song returns to the groove. The vocal chorus and the funky bassline are relatively sticky, but it takes a few listens for the song to burrow into the listener's consciousness.
A lot of the album is like this. O'Brien has solid songs that don't really stick out in any major way, with a pair of exceptions. Both "Long Time Waiting" and "Real Go-Getter" are memorable for the same reason: the intrusion of glitchy synth sounds into O'Brien's standard sonic palette. "Long Time Waiting" begins with a light but funky drumbeat, some piano, and adds a funkier groove in the bass after a few seconds. O'Brien's vocals are low-key, even in the chorus where he admonishes "If you believe that it's for the taking / That somebody's gonna do it for you / You're gonna be a long time waiting." That's a trio of lines that seems like it would require an energetic delivery, but not for O'Brien apparently. Anyway, once the second verse starts, a bouncy little synth noise starts to pop up at odd intervals. It sounds like somebody was playing an old NES game in the studio and inconsistently started pushing the "jump" button and somehow it got recorded and included as part of the song. The song has a nice horn section break later on and a wobbly analog synth (or is it heavily processed guitar?) solo, but nothing sticks out as much as the weird jumping sound.
"Real Go-Getter" features synth strangeness from the get-go. The song starts with a synth noise that goes from a high tone to a midrange tone and builds the song around this two-note pattern. An acoustic guitar, a thumping kick drum, and a string section all quickly join the song, but that pattern keeps intruding, sometimes when you expect it, but often when you don't. It seems like it's going to disappear when O'Brien quietly sings the chorus (there are a whole lot of quiet choruses on this record), "Since I got better / I'm a real go-getter." But then it pops back up. These synth elements are intriguing accouterments to O'Brien's standard sonic palette, and they grabbed my attention.
The rest of The Art of Pretending to Swim relies on O'Brien's standard instrumentation and songwriting. And this is where the album is fine without being particularly memorable. O'Brien's penchant for a funky rhythm section, with skittering drums and simple but groove-heavy basslines, tend to give his songs a bit of a kick. But then his airy, mostly finger-picked guitar playing and soft, crooning vocals flatten the songs out again. That happens on songs like "Sweet Saviour" and "Love Came With All That It Brings", the latter of which might feature the most unassuming (or sneakiest) use of the word "motherfucker" in recorded history. "Fool" has a catchy chorus that approaches an actual hook, and the musically inert verses are enhanced because O'Brien has some real energy to his vocal delivery for a change.
The album ends with the six-minute "Ada", which coasts along for four and a half minutes at a languid pace, with slow drums, lightly strummed guitars, gentle piano, and even seagull sounds. It's all set just to drift until it fades away at that four and a half minute mark, when the song suddenly becomes a high-speed workout, with incredibly fast hi-hat cymbal playing, a quick guitar line, and ominous synths. That only lasts for about a minute before the track does indeed fade away, but it's a tantalizing glimpse into a different side of Villagers that O'Brien otherwise completely avoids.
The Art of Pretending to Swim is never less than pleasant, and there are no bad songs here. But it's only intermittently interesting because O'Brien's vocals and melodies are mostly just okay. When O'Brien throws in those weird synth sounds and that fast final minute of "Ada", or even that better than average refrain on "Fool", that's when Villagers grab the ears. Outside of those instances, the album often faded from my focus, becoming slightly funky background music.