Anybody who has seen Villagers in the last year won’t be surprised by the ‘reimaginings’ that comprise Where Have You Been All My Life?, recorded in one day at London’s RAK Studio. Half of its songs are taken from last year’s Choice Prize-nominated Darling Arithmetic, two from their debut album, and three from 2013’s Awayland.
That latter album was the group’s most raucous so it should be no surprise that its first single, ‘The Waves’, sounds the most transformed by this new, mellower Conor O’Brien-led outfit. There’s an added punch to what we’re used to, a stripped-back sound with O’Brien front and centre.
The older songs, album opener ‘Set the Tiger Free’ and ‘That Day’, have long shaken off their previously recorded guises, the latter in particular having been a near-solo performance for years. ‘The Soul Serene’ and ‘Everything I Am Is Yours’ aren’t much different a year after we first heard them, though erstwhile b-side ‘Memoir’ gets a jazzy redo. All these recordings are first or second takes, but do not sound rushed or throwaway.
Villagers’ best song, the stunning, heartrending breakup of ‘Hot Scary Summer’, is again the star here, less a revelation this time and more a grand declaration, augmented by the band’s new members, Mali Llywelyn and Gwion Llewelyn.
In this collection, O’Brien is no longer trying to evade being described as the best songwriter in the country. His poetry is no longer hidden by growling guitar. If he grew in ‘Courage’ and became a jackal on Darling Arithmetic, then Where Have You Been All My Life? is O’Brien soaring high. It feels like a journey, culminating in the declaration on the penultimate track ‘So Naive’ that, “I believe that I’m part of something bigger”. There may be few surprises here but it’s a joyous listen.
The closer, and clincher, is a cover of the Glen Campbell song ‘Wichita Lineman’. It’s simply sumptuous, Gwion’s flugelhorn capable of stopping the listener in their tracks before they’re left weak at the knees as Conor O’Brien croons: “I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time.”
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