Following the kaleidoscopic adventure of Villagers’ fifth album Fever Dreams, award-winning Dublin singer-songwriter-instrumentalist-dramatist Conor O’Brien returns with the intimate inventory that he has named That Golden Time.
No less intense than its more feverish predecessor, the exquisite new album unfurls O’Brien’s trademark melodic flair, his gift for simultaneously vivid and subtle arrangements and lyrics that couch his hopes, fears and dreams in richly absorbing poetry. That Golden Time takes its name from the fifth track, which doubles as the album’s lead single. “I wanted the warmth of the record reflected in its title,” O’Brien explains. “The song also touches on a theme that keeps cropping up, of romanticism versus realism. How can you have aspirational ideas about yourself and the world around you, whilst being confronted with a harsh, cold reality? The friction interested me, as well as a lingering feeling that there was a time when things were better – but perhaps that time never existed.”
After the band-centred sessions of Fever Dreams, That Golden Time’s solo-centric core was not forced on O’Brien by lockdown. “For me, That Golden Time has an internalised voice, so much so that I almost found it impossible to let anyone else in, to the point of mixing it myself,” he says. “It’s probably the most vulnerable album I’ve made. I played and recorded everything in my apartment, and finally, towards the end, invited people in. But I was always dreaming of embellishments and arrangements so I could never have made a fully sparse solo album.”
Invites went out to, among others, Irish legend Dónal Lunny [Planxty, The Bothy Band] on bouzouki, American songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Peter Broderick on violin, and a group of players that O’Brien had first seen performing in a tribute to one of his great loves, Italian composer Ennio Morricone, who added soprano vocal, viola and cello. “The final few weeks felt like putting together a giant jigsaw.”
Similarly, O’Brien jigsaw-fits the impact of writers – philosophers, poets, playwrights and singer-songwriters alike – that have seeped into his consciousness: namechecks this time go to Dory Previn, Marcus Aurelius, Fintan O’Toole, Lorraine Hansberry, Chet Baker, Joan Didion, PJ Harvey and post-classical beauties Rachel’s. The booklet that accompanies That Golden Time includes a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche’s 19th century classic Beyond Good And Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, which addresses the value of independent thought, which links to the album’s opening song, ‘Truly Alone’. Says O’Brien, “If you think it’s a song about loneliness, then you’re not listening closely enough.”
One of the many highlights of That Golden Time is the gently caustic ‘Brother Hen’. “It’s about getting wise to events, and losing your naivety. My favourite verse is ‘And nature tells of the danger below / The power of the extreme / We never learn what we’ve always known / And it’s half of what it seems.’ It’s about that cloudy grey area between the extremes. But as [poet] A. E. Housman said, ‘meaning is for the intellect; poetry is not.’ These songs are little pieces of crying, or laughter, or dreams: they’re not there to be didactic or make a point. But something compels me to share them.”
Whilst Fever Dreams’ artwork featured a giant fuzzy bear, That Golden Time displays a textbook drawing of a moth, an avatar for O’Brien’s feelings, disorientated by the constant glare of the mobile screen. “The moth gets confused by the flame,” O’Brien notes, “and meets its timely demise.”
The poetry within That Golden Time is effortlessly carried by gorgeous melodies, but the instruments also do some heavy lifting, shifting and heightening the mood. In ‘No Drama’, as the narrator pleads for respite from the vicissitudes of life, O’Brien equates an orchestral swell with a plea for quiet beauty and peace: “such a simple life you’re dreaming of / no drama, only love.” In ‘First Responder’, Dónal Lunny’s bouzouki is deployed, “to give a glowing, shimmering feeling,” says O’Brien, “because the song is about an angelic figure: a volunteer first responder I met during a medical emergency. People like him seem to float so quietly above all the ideological nonsense: “a working piece of a system that’s broken.” Horns and strings offer a more widescreen version of the angelic mood. Says O’Brien, “The album is quite spare for periods of time, but when it chooses its epic moments, it really digs in.”
Lunny’s bouzouki also enhances ‘You Lucky One’, a song that ties in to the album artwork’s secondary image, of a coin (an Irish twenty pence coin). “The types of physical currency change throughout time, but the essential power relationships and bartering principles persevere throughout the cosmetic changes.” The song documents two protagonists, one who promises riches to the other but is revealed to be more of a parasite. “Who is using who?” says O’Brien. “I think it explores the often-simplified notion of privilege. It’s a messy affair. ‘Behind That Curtain’ is a similarly cautionary tale.”
The album’s longest track, ‘Behind That Curtain’ is a rare moment of musical discombobulation as a solemn, soulful ballad hands over to a jazzy coda with a clarinet riding throbbing beats. “I think that’s the moment you’ve gone behind the curtain,” says O’Brien, “It’s the sound of deafening alarm bells inside your head.” As the coda fades, That Golden Time ends with ‘Money On The Mind’, a contrasting moment of serenity - almost a lullaby – with a ray of hope. The protagonist’s metamorphosis from idealistic young salesman to money-hungry fat cat sets a nihilistic tone, but the album’s very last line, softly crooned, is “My money’s on the mind, truth be told,” a shout-out to the resilience of the human spirit. The moth might be disorientated, but it swerves the flame to live another day. And with it, O’Brien has completed another sublime chapter in Villagers’ tale.