For Conor O’Brien, the beauty of adopting the Villagers’ guise once he emerged from the short lived majesty of The Immediate is that he’s been able to do pretty much whatever he likes. It’s enabled him to take advantage of opportunities as a solo artist alongside the positives of being part of a band. Album wise, he’s been able to move from style to style across three records – going it completely alone on last year’s Darling Arithmetic before returning with a new look live show that concentrated on the subtle side of things.
It’s this chapter that forms the basis for his rapid return to the studio. And rapid is the right word, with Where Have You Been All My Life? recorded in a single day London’s RAK Studio with Richard Woodcraft (Radiohead, The Last Shadow Puppets) and Villagers’ live engineer Ber Quinn. Billed as a reimagining of material from the past five years, it’s essentially a live album without an audience – an angle that makes more sense than viewing this as the fourth record.
As such, there aren’t an awful lot of surprises. The Darling Arithmetic material is given a slight sonic boost by the assembled players but is still essentially, beautifully fragile. The older songs are the ones that receive the most notable attention, with both ‘Set The Tigers Free’ and ‘That Day’ reappearing in more downplayed form (this is not a record for those in search of big choruses). Most striking of all is ‘The Waves’, which transforms from the electronic original to an acoustic whig out without losing any of its power. In fact it’s probably a superior version. New songs are thin on the ground, with only a version of ‘Memoir’ (written for Charlotte Gainsbourg) and a heart rending reading of ‘Wichita Lineman’ offering anything approaching something we haven’t heard before.
That given, we’re effectively none the wiser after listening to Where Have You Been All My Life?. Yes ‘Hot Scary Summer’ is incredible here, but it was when we first heard it. Having taken us on an unexpected turn each time before, this is the sound of Conor O’Brien taking a small, natural step. A pleasant enough snapshot of where he was at on one day in 2015, it may not be as essential as what’s come before but is still a record of a unique talent.