BEST OF 2016: Villagers – Where Have You Been All My Life?

It all hinges on ‘Wichita Lineman’, a piece of music so ubiquitous that one could be forgiven for thinking that it’s impossible to do a bad version of it. There is some truth in that, in as much as a truly great song will eke out a shallow breath even after some fairly brutal treatment at the hands of a careless producer or inept vocalist, but it’s actually a little more complex. In fact, what is so often the case with songs like this is that the really tricky thing is doing a version that is genuinely, sincerely great. It is at the other end of the scale where so many artists flounder. The song is golden and they’re dab hands themselves, so what could go wrong? As it turns out, after half an hour of rummaging around on Spotify, quite a lot. I’ve always been partial to R.E.M.’s raw live take released around the time of their finest album, ‘New Adventures In Hi-Fi’, and there’s a Smokey Robinson & The Miracles version that I didn’t know but now rather like, but most of what remains would make for a fairly mediocre lift experience. Johnny Cash’s late period approach almost flattens it, Sergio Mendes rips out its heart, Tom Jones over-emotes it in a way that only a man who believes he’s far sexier than anyone else does could do and whatever the hell botoxed Marti Pellow thought he was up to is not immediately clear. In short, ‘Wichita Lineman’ can make some of the best, and Marti Pellow, sound like X Factor third week evictees if it’s not treated well.

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All of which is a lengthy way of setting the context for this overlooked gem of a record that crept out on January 8th. As was the case for most things released around the time of Bowie’s death, it had little chance of catching the public’s attention. Add in the fact that it was a collection of intimate re-workings of mostly previously released material, recorded in a day, and it doesn’t sound like one to set the world alight. A quick dash through the tracks upon release was arrested after trialling yet another take on the aforementioned Jimmy Webb-penned classic about the lonely worker. Conor O’Brien’s tender, creaky delivery breathes new life into a song that’s had more than its fair share of outings. As an album closer it is majestic and it is a compliment to his own material that it sounds entirely in keeping with the fifty minutes of music that precede it here.

Opening with two tracks from 2010’s ‘Becoming A Jackal’, it becomes immediately clear that there is a logic behind this endeavour. While that debut holds up six years on, the refinement on show here serves to recast some of those tracks as modern torch songs. ‘Set The Tigers Free’, with its hushed drums and lulling synth is a glorious opener, conveying the fact that O’Brien’s voice is a much more nuanced vehicle for these words than it once was. The descending piano part on ‘Everything I Am Is Yours’ extracts one of the glorious but subtle elements of the original and foregrounds it as the whole thing speeds up and take off.

Songs that might have otherwise been regarded as pleasant parts of previous records suddenly appear fully realised. ‘My Lighthouse’ benefits from a sparse performance, with just a little light flugelhorn and dramatic reverb taking it somewhere other than its incarnation on 2013’s ‘{Awayland}’. ‘That Day’, from the debut, loses its zip of old and instead becomes all the more forlorn and enveloping, the final minute one of those magical examples of an artist and their band slowly removing themselves from the landscape note by note and decibel by decibel.

The Soul Serene’ is one of the more grandiose moments on a largely demure set, imbued with a little more energy than the version on 2015’s ‘Darling Arithmetic’, while ‘Memoir’ makes its first appearance as a Villagers song, having originally been written for Charlotte Gainsbourg. A nimble shuffle with a beautiful chorus, it should serve as another incentive for anyone grumbly enough to feel like the logic behind this release isn’t worthy of their time. The burbling electronica of 2013’s ‘The Waves’ makes way for the alchemical fizz that can emerge from a small group of musicians playing in front of each other, lost in the moment. In crafting a cohesive palette for all twelve songs, O’Brien has arrived at something truly special.

Perhaps most telling in my assertion of the quality of ‘Where Have You Been All My Life?’ is the fact that none of Villagers’ previous albums have made it into my end of year countdowns. This spontaneous performance became a perfect storm. From the title and artwork right the way through to the final studio ambience that concludes ‘Wichita Lineman’, this is a musician in his element, portraying the strongest examples of his work in the most magical of lights.

Where Have You Been All My Life?’ is out now on Domino.