Villagers | Pop review

Old Vic Tunnels, London

Villagers' Becoming a Jackal, one of the 12 albums nominated for this year's Mercury prize, is strewn with intimations of peculiarity. Its lyrics are woven from the stuff of nightmares, singer Conor O'Brien frequently emits a lycanthropic howl, and one song, I Saw the Dead, ends with the thud of what might be a corpse hitting the floor. None of this, however, is sufficient preparation for the compelling weirdness of Villagers performing live.

Much of this weirdness stems from O'Brien himself. Boyish in appearance, with a tousle of static-charged hair, he howls at the audience not only within songs but between them, and stares at us directly when he sings in a manner that is confrontational and unnerving – not least during Becoming a Jackal, when he challenges us to contemplate "how I benefit from you being here, lending me your ears while I'm selling you my fears". His admission that he's jetlagged and thus befuddled (what he actually says is: "I feel like there's a bum in my elbow") only heightens our awareness of the precision of his performance.

An evening with O'Brien alone would be odd enough, especially in the Old Vic Tunnels, a found space in the bowels of Waterloo station that – in keeping with Villagers' lyrics – feels curiously divorced from real life, no matter how many trains rumble overhead. But it is the interplay between O'Brien and the other Villagers that startles the most. There is something stealthy about this music: its elements keep sneaking off in different directions, so much so in I Saw the Dead that the quintet seem to be playing at cross purposes. It means that when they unite – in the roiling Ship of Promises, or the romanticism of Pieces – the effect is overwhelming.

At the Big Chill festival 7 August, then touring.


Maddy Costa

The GuardianTramp

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