Throughout Villagers’ new album, Fever Dreams, singer/songwriter and one constant member, Conor O’Brien ponders a retreat from modern living while at the same time exploring and enjoying its freedoms and adventures.
The Irishman’s been telling people recently that he has sought to disrupt his connections to the online world, for example by seeking out books rather than media, going further still to books written before the Internet that O’Brien thinks has changed the way we use language.
“I want to make something which was maybe trying to fight against the way that I felt my brain was starting to get programmed by the Internet and algorithms,” he says from his Dublin home. “So I was trying to read more books and stuff like that and maybe make something warm, embracing.”
Yet here we are on Zoom, talking an album, his fifth, that while begun as a group of musicians in one room playing off each other, isn’t afraid to manipulate electronics in and around traditional sounds. Much as O’Brien’s been doing since the second Villagers album, Awayland, let loose beats and bleeps on the literary-heavy, man-with-an-acoustic folk/rock that had defined his debut.
It’s a tricky feat to manage in other words, and Fever Dreams is an album without hard lines, musically and lyrically. Warm and embracing it might be, but there are no fixed shapes and the sensation of not always knowing where your feet are going is a defining element of this record.
“There was definitely a blurring of lines. I’m kind of a space cadet so I kind of was reflecting the way that maybe I perceive things sometimes,” he says. “There were lots of eureka moments, lots of breakthroughs [in the lyric writing], there were many moments when we started to establish patterns, myself and the guys, and then we broke out of those patterns and that’s when something special happened.”
One such moment was while working on the song Restless Endeavour which began as “a very long jam and I was sort of whispering in everyone’s ears with the headphones on, as they were playing”. That jam ended up with only its last three minutes on the album, but it wasn’t wasted because “when that begins on the album it’s like the band have already warmed up, you’re hearing a band that’s already sweaty and playing already.”
What was he whispering in there is to get the right effect? Something like “technology’s going to kill you all”?
“No, no,” he laughs. “Just, ‘this is the bit where it builds up’, or saying ‘we don’t know where we are now’. I was influenced by a video of Angelo Badalamenti and David Lynch talking about their process, where [the film director] Lynch would say to him ‘now we are in a forest’ and Angelo would be doing all these chords, and I wanted to copy him.”
Even something like the natural-sounding guitar solo in Circles In The Firing Line feels like a riposte to the technology before the tech-heavy freak out of the final 40 seconds that makes physical O’Brien singing “you’re fucking up my favourite dream”, like someone shouting into the void, refusing to succumb.
“I think that song went through a lot of different processes. It was a piano ballad for a while then it started to take on a life of its own and it just felt right to go overboard with the rock out stuff. It’s kind of trying to describe an extreme situation, and is trying to describe psychological problems with this age we are in and the tribalism it’s starting to form,” O’Brien says. “It felt like it was shouting back at the craziness with an extra level of craziness and slightly ridiculous as well.
“I also wanted to have two meanings, because the firing line has two meanings: when you’re in the firing line it means you are under attack, but a firing line if you are in it means you are the one doing the attacking. The fucking up my favourite dream, you can almost see it as the reliable narrator screaming that, but you could also see it as someone who has a rigid, fixed idea going ‘aaggh, all this shit’s fucking my un-nuanced, uncomplicated view of the world’.”
From this high though, the fevered dream of the first half of the record soon becomes a languid dream in its latter stages.
“I wanted that deliriousness. It breaks out of the mould,” says O’Brien. “[The third last track] Full Faith In Providence is quite a central song. It reassesses things and there is something in the narrative that shifts for me. It’s clinging to something warmer and more aspirational from that point onwards.”
O’Brien begins to chuckle as he says this. “I’m kind of figuring it out right now as we’re talking about it.”
Maybe the best example of the twin poles of thought, or the line being walked by O’Brien, is the album’s cover, by Brighton artist Paul Phillips, which is almost David Hockney in extremis. We see someone’s floating in a pool, star light bouncing off the water while in the trees surrounding the concrete setting a giant bear peers at the scene, being not quite threatening, but not quite soothing either.
“I sent [Phillips] about half the album I think, we discussed the themes and I told them I wanted something that reflected some idea of scale, especially in that song Song In Seven, where it’s talking about lying in the sea looking up at the universe, and thinking about intellectual curiosity that that might inspire," says O'Brien.
"He returned with that bear image and it blew me away instantly because it connects with the Ursa Major constellation that is mentioned in one of the songs. Then he went and did the other three covers [for the accompanying singles] with constellation idea and how we can put patterns onto our lives.”
Patterns, sure. But in the way the album’s production seems to be balanced in a similar way, the strong hand of modernity playing against free floating humanity, you could look at it as a man floating, relaxed and dreaming, in balance, or are we seeing a body left behind in this man-made environment while overhanging nature looks on, perplexed, biding its time.
Or maybe, like O’Brien, he’s caught between those stories, between two worlds.
Fever Dreams is out now.
A version of this story was first published at jaxsta.com