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Could Conor O’Brien become boring in his brilliance? A flaw of the human condition means that being consistent doesn’t always invoke the same excitement as promises of the next big thing. It’s easy to take an artist for granted when they produce a strong album at every time of asking.
Just look at this list of influences cited in the press notes for Fever Dreams, O’Brien’s sixth album under his Villagers moniker in 11 years: Duke Ellington, Alice Coltrane, Flann O’Brien, Audre Lorde, David Lynch, L.S. Lowry, Piero Umiliani, Alessandro Alessandroni and “night swimming on a Dutch island”. These assertions may or may not be true – and good luck detecting all these sources – but a willingness to find new inspiration is a signal of Villagers (sometimes referred to as a band, but essentially O’Brien and a rotating cast of musicians) going all out to fight back any sense of stasis.
Fever Dreams is a more lavish record than Villagers’ also-excellent previous effort The Art of Pretending to Swim. Produced by O’Brien himself, its sense of scale is comparable to the style of baroque super-producers Jon Brion (known for his work with Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple and Mac Miller, among others) and The Beatles’ key confidant George Martin. The short intro “Something Bigger” even evokes the famous swelling symphony from “A Day in the Life”, setting an opulent tone.
Ratcheting up their arrangements is a common strategy for artists seeking to avoid stagnation. The important thing here is that the extra scale doesn’t overwhelm O’Brien’s long-established strengths. Fever Dreams boasts his warm, wooly-hatted indie aesthetic. There’s the Dubliner’s creaky voice, airy melodies, and earnest yet emotionally complex songwriting. This is music for intense listening in a comfortable chair as you clutch the record sleeve in both arms.
As luck (if you want to call it that) had it, the scheduled final session of full-band recordings on Fever Dreams fell on the first day of Ireland’s initial Covid lockdown in March 2020. O’Brien spent the subsequent months in his tiny home studio, putting the finishing touches to the record. The result is a set that feels finely crafted without being tweaked into oblivion.
In many ways it’s a classicist rock album, inviting elements of prog, chamber pop and adult contemporary into the mix. Take “Circles In The Firing Line”: a boppy little guitar pop song that manages to find room for a swooning “You Only Live Twice”-sized string arrangement in the middle before ending with a swaggering glam-rock workout. Still, Fever Dreams never feels like retro parroting, but rather a staunch indifference to trends.
Beneath the grandeur, Villagers has made an album about the joys of life that feels steeped in catharsis. “So Simpatico” is a big, fat love song about that one person who enters the gardens of your mind and refuses to vacate the premises. O’Brien performs like he’s walking on air, his joy supported by a twinkling instrumental featuring piano keys, strings and layers of backing vocals courtesy of Jess Kav, who features on four songs in total. “So Simpatico” ends with a huge sax solo because of course it does.
One of the best songs, “Momentarily”, sees O’Brien get bogged down by the minutiae of life – the dread of the rat race causing a dulling pain in his head – before thoughts of a loved one offers him an escape from the dourness. The haunting piano riff that provides the song with its gravitational pull is reminiscent of Paul McCartney’s “Riding to Vanity Fair”, one of his best latter-day songs. Here, O’Brien shows his ability to isolate emotions and make them easy to identify with.
Fever Dreams isn’t all amazing. Single “First Day” is a fun enough anthem about dreaming big and extracting the goodness out of life, but the impossible optimist can feel a bit trite. “Feels like falling in love/On the first day of the rest of your life”, sings O’Brien, drawing upon a tired cliche. And some songs are a little too long as the extended outros meander into the realm of self indulgence. (“So Simpatico” and “Circles In The Firing Line” are actually available as shorter edits, so if you’re really bothered you can create your own Fever Dreams playlist with those clipped versions.)
These are minor drawbacks. Fever Dreams adds up to another great Villagers album to add to the pile. It reasserts O’Brien as one of Ireland’s best songwriters, a truth that shouldn’t be overlooked because excellence is what we’ve come to expect.