The first thing that strikes you about the fifth album from Conor O’Brien’s Villagers is that it is very aptly named. They’ve always been a difficult band to classify, but Fever Dreams almost belongs to a genre all on its own.
Recorded just before the first lockdown in 2020, and then edited and tweaked over those initial strange months of isolation, there’s an almost hallucinatory air to most of the album. Whereas the last Villagers record, The Art Of Pretending To Swim, dipped its toe in electronic experimentalism, O’Brien here nods to jazz, soft rock, and film scores. It’s an album that keeps you on your toes, as you’re never entirely sure where it’s heading to.
The First Day is pretty representative of the album as a whole – beginning in a slightly unsettling woozy haze, woozy, it soon builds up to a brass-augmented anthemic chorus about how it “feels like falling in love on the first day of your rest of your life”. Turn it up loud and it’s impossible not to be swept up in its majesty.
Throughout Fever Dreams, O’Brien is unafraid to turn up the weirdness. So Simpatico is a seven minute marvel that features a long saxophone solo, twinkly piano and unexpected chord changes, yet still manages to sound completely accessible (it was a fixture on BBC 6Music’s playlist for some time). Even the long running time doesn’t seem that excessive.
There are moments that recall The Flaming Lips, and at times The War On Drugs, which show how far O’Brien has progressed from being that acoustic troubadour who emerged from Dublin just over a decade ago. Circles In The Firing Line spans both lithe funk and singalong indie, while Full Faith In Providence is a delicately bruised piano ballad that sounds like the sonic equivalent of someone curling up in a ball to escape their woes.
These stylistic leaps don’t make Fever Dreams any less coherent as an album though. In fact, this is possibly Villagers’ finest record since their debut Considering A Jackal. O’Brien has certainly rarely recorded anything as confident and poised as Song In Seven, featuring a multi-tracked, pitch-shifted choir of multiple O’Briens, or anything with the agitated energy such as the saxophone-heavy studio jam of Restless Endeavour.
Some people may be left cold by the psychedelic strains of the album, especially as it meanders to its close (the penultimate title track is basically a cut-up job of snippets of dialogues, odd instrumentation and O’Brien’s distracted-sounded vocals). This is an album that demands to be properly listened to though, not reduced to background music – properly immerse yourself in Villagers’ Fever Dreams and it’s an experience you won’t want to wake up from.