It’s probably fair to say that we’re not suffering for any deficiency of earnest singer/songwriters nowadays, but even in that most crowded of fields Conor O’Brien stands head and shoulders above most. If last year’s Hollow Kind EP served as an introductory knock on the door from O’Brien, Becoming A Jackal is a fistic thump which knocks the door off its hinges.
It is easy to see why this is one of the most anticipated Irish albums of recent years, even before you listen to it. O’Brien recently became the first Irish act to sign with Domino Records, garnered significant praise from both home and abroad for his live performances and culminated it all with a beautifully delicate performance on Later With’¦Jools Holland. None of this would stand for much, however, if O’Brien was unable to capture this raw essence on record. Rest assured though, this eleven-track collection is a lo-fi bonanza of haunting melody which continues to peel back layer after layer, revealing incrementally greater strength and substance the more you listen to it.
Title track (and first single) ‘Becoming A Jackal’, with its lush arrangement and memorable chorus, contains at its core a sombre duality which permeates through a number of Villagers songs, highlighting the darker side of a give and take relationship. “So before you take this song as truth”, sings O’Brien “you should wonder what I’m taking from you, how I benefit from you being here, lending me your ears while I’m selling you my fears.”
‘Pieces’ also contains this introspective element, describing the plight of someone who is forced to hide their true character from others (“You just split yourself in two, one for them and one for you”) before descending into some sort of feral lycanthropic howl. Some may overlook the dark, edgy side to this song but, like a lot of other songs on Becoming A Jackal, it reads more like a defiant, heartfelt statement when separated from the music.
‘The Pact (I’ll Be Your Fever)’ bounces along like pure sunlight compared to some of the darker tones on the album, with an upbeat tempo and a rhythm section which almost sounds like it could have been recorded in Sun Studios decades ago and ‘To Be Counted Among Men’ closes the album off in gorgeous fashion, a perfect example of the balance of frailty, compassion and raw power contained on this album. Becoming A Jackal is a fascinating record, showcasing O’Brien’s knack for penning fragile, intimate masterpieces. This isn’t Conor O’Brien’s first major artistic statement, but it’s his best yet. Outstanding.