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Villagers - Becoming a Jackal

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Artist: Villagers

Album: Becoming a Jackal

Label: Domino

Review date: Jun. 8, 2010

Conor O’Brien’s most obvious reference point is his namesake: fellow indie singer-songwriter Conor Oberst, with whom he shares both a bit of facial appearance and a penchant for annoyingly immature, would-be poetic brooding. According to the press release for Becoming a Jackal, the debut album by O’Brien’s solo project Villagers, O’Brien wanted to sound as though he were “whispering in your ear, but also to get the epic-ness at times.” Unfortunately, the record’s first few songs bear the burden of an Oberst-like ambition to give youthful stewing an epic, or even mythic proportion. With its rollicking piano in minor and words to match its title, “I Saw the Dead” sounds about as ugly as the prospect of Coldplay gone emo. The title track may be saved by its enthralling melody and slinky, counterpointing guitar lines, but it is similarly defaced by tawdry gloom and doom: “Where the jackals preyed on every soul / Where they tied you to a pole / And stripped you of your clothes . . . Each time they found fresh meat to chew / I would turn away and return to you.”

Fortunately, O’Brien offers more than just the high school-grade emotional antics and cheap theatrics that have kept Oberst — in the words of Stephen Thomas Erlewine — “wallowing in perpetual adolescence.” If you set aside some uninspired, cryptic-as-poetic moody fantasy lyrics (and a few forgettable songs truly as slight as whispers), Becoming a Jackal reveals a hidden stash of imminently memorable melodies. At their most effective, O’Brien’s compositions take these tunes as their center of gravity — as though he hummed them in the shower and subsequently dictated the chords and instruments. No small feat for a singer-songwriter who croons earnestly about “shackles,” “jackals,” “the dead” and a “ship of promises.”

O’Brien is most compelling when he sounds less like Oberst and more like Dan Bejar, when his borderline-incoherent lyrics shed their melancholic grandiosity and become enjoyably evocative. “The Pact (I’ll Be Your Fever)” is perhaps the most refreshing example. Prancing along atop faint organ led by jaunty bass and drum, O’Brien turns in several pleasant verses and slight refrains (“You be my master, and I’ll be your fever”) before doubling his vocal and sending the melody into higher-pitched variations. By the time he cuts out, giving the melody over to the piano, he’s staked his claim to being a savvy pop songwriter — not just an emotional youngster with a recording contract.

The strategy employed by “The Pact” — leading with relative unadorned, wordy-verses, then using vocal-layering to implant a catchy tune in the listener’s memory — fuels the more successful latter-half of the record. “Twenty-Seven Strangers” and “Set the Tigers Free” begin with meandering mumbles but eventually climax with a yearning-fuelled refrain and a brief melody/countermelody duet, respectively. “Pieces,” with its faint waltz line overlaid on sparse, swaying percussion, even sounds a bit like a lost remnant from one of Sinatra’s wistful concept albums. (Indeed, the lyric “one for them and one for you” even recalls “one for my baby and one more for the road.”) This is encouraging; O’Brien could scarcely find a better model of pop music adulthood to help him outgrow the impediments of his youth.

By Benjamin Ewing

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