Fever Dreams by Villagers
Escapism is a very necessary pursuit right now, and Conor O’Brien follows it to mesmerising effect on Villagers’ fifth studio album. Fever Dreams works like all the best records – it becomes a mode of transport; it picks you up from where you are and sets you down elsewhere.
“I had an urge to write something that was as generous to the listener as it was to myself,” he says. “I wanted to make people smile but also to create a space to reflect in. I wanted nuance, warmth and intellectual curiosity all wrapped up in a kind of agnostic devotional stew. Sometimes the most delirious states can produce the most ecstatic, euphoric and escapist dreams.”
These are songs with the strange melted shapes and the magical ambivalence of dreams. Of course, we are all such gifted storytellers when we dream: ceaselessly, and without effort, the scenes present themselves, the perfect dialogue unspools, a cohesive dream logic holds, and it springs the most beautiful images, or the most terrifying sweeps of fantasy.
And then we wake up to the grey skies and bleariness, to the unease and ennui of the everyday, and we can’t do it anymore – the dreams have receded into the darkness of the sub-conscious, and trying to catch hold of them again is like trying to grasp water.
Thus it drearily remains, until and unless the dreamer becomes the artist – it is the artist who learns how to collapse the barriers that separate the everyday from the dreamlife, and in this mysterious way allows the life and the work to become one. On this record, it is evident at once that Conor O’Brien has become that artist.
He has been from the start, of course, but on Fever Dreams, there is a sense of a deepening mastery and an expanding reach. There is a fullness, a sense of earned wholeness – it’s one of those rare records that seems a world onto itself. Its sound is big and rich. The intent of the songs is both mysterious and as clear as a bell. There is a sense of ease to the songwriting, it feels very natural – it’s as if these songs were out there all the while, they just needed to be found and carefully picked up. In a tiny home studio in Dublin, over the course of the long, slow pandemic days, they were refined and carefully polished and now they glow like gemstones.
Written over the course of two years, the main bodies of the songs were recorded in a series of full-band studio sessions in late 2019 and early 2020. The virus then arrived, and with it the great strangeness of lockdown. But artists are, above all, survivors, and Conor O’Brien found a way to use the weird new spaciousness of the days – in that cramped little studio – to finish the most fully achieved of the Villagers records to date.
We have the misfortune, of course, to live in these interesting times, and the chaos of the era became a feed for the songs.
“I think it’s safe to say that the last few years have been pretty tough,” Conor says. “The constant barrage of an increasingly polarised world hurtling towards ecological oblivion is enough to drive anyone insane, with or without a global pandemic. Making this music felt like a salve for the soul.”
The songs on Fever Dreams were found in many places and came in from all angles. The First Day was inspired by a trip to the fabled Another Love Story festival in County Meath – beginning as a snatched electronic doodle, it morphed into a widescreen, lushly cinematic evocation of the joy in human connection. So Simpatico, by contrast, sprang to life as an expansive, full-band jam but found its pure expression when Conor took it back to the home studio and honed, simplified, reduced it – in its finished form, it’s got the sweetest pop sensibility. The mysterious Circles In The Firing Line rails against the white noise of the contemporary moment, but does so in a soulful melodic loop. Song In Seven was conceived while night swimming on the Dutch island of Vlieland, with the constellation of Ursa Major lighting the sky. The title track was inspired by a reading of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman –
“It was just one of those books that opened my mind up to the endless possibilities of creativity when I really needed it,” Conor says. “It’s a song about placing yourself on the edge of things so as to regain some clarity about the centre.”
And the very beautiful Full Faith In Providence?
“A lockdown special courtesy of my late grandmother’s piano and an eerie silence surrounding my apartment. The guest vocalist Rachael Lavelle is literally divine; I am in love with her voice.”
O’Brien searches out the nutrients for his songs with a polymath’s fervour. The influences he lists for Fever Dreams include the library music of Piero Umiliani and Alessandro Alessandroni, jazz from Duke Ellington and Alice Coltrane, poems from Yeats and Patrick Kavanagh, essays by Olivia Laing and Audre Lorde, the paintings of Maripi Morales & L.S. Lowry, the thinking and worldview of David Lynch.
There’s something about that Lowry reference that casts a very useful light on this latest Villagers work. What Lowry did in his seemingly naïve paintings of Salford and Pendlebury was to allow the dreamlife of Lancashire spring free from the nocturnal realm and to exist in the light of day, to exist in the streets. It was a way of breaking down those barriers between life and the dream. It was a way of bringing the real and the surreal together, of recognising that they are just inversions of each other, that they are in fact made out of each other. This, it seems to me, is precisely what Conor and his band have achieved on Fever Dreams – this is a record that shows us that life is just a dream, and vice versa.