Album Review Fever Dreams A Balm for the Soul

Fever Dreams, Source Domino Recording Company

B.J. Quinn

On reflection, this past summer wasn’t too shabby: we learned to dine al fresco, enjoyed blue skies and, if you happened to be fully vaxed with a cert to prove it, flew across those skies to even sunnier ones. What the summer sorely lacked, however, was a soundtrack to go along with it. 
The pandemic had a significant impact on the music scene, not just the live performance industry but the music itself. Sitting on top of pop, Billie Eilish, at the grand age of 19, felt it time to reinvent herself. Her highly anticipated sophomore record, Happier Than Ever, did mark a change in sound but failed to recapture the mass appeal of her debut. 
The responsibility of providing a summer soundtrack then fell to Lorde. The New Zealand superstar may have been away from the spotlight the last several years but Solar Power, her third album, promised a grand comeback, bursting with sunny tunes to last us till winter. Summer was saved, or so we thought. Unfortunately, on its release, Solar Power failed to live up to expectations – granted, her previous album, Melodrama, did set a pretty high bar – offering a self-aware, scaled-back sound with a lot of loose vibes but few catchy hooks. 
Well, it turns out the answer was right under our noses the whole time. Fever Dreams, the new album by Dublin indie folk band Villagers, is a brazen declaration of love and light. While the rest of us were spending lockdown drinking from jars, enjoying viral sea shanties and becoming sourdough connoisseurs, Villagers’ main man Conor O’Brien was busy getting soulful, the nerve! 

Feels like snowflake
Feels likе sunshine
Feels like soft rain
Feels like sweet rhymе.

A band known for their sparse melancholic ditties, Fever Dreams comes as a revelation; music that takes you by the collar and dunks you face first into a whirlpool of colourful sound. From its lead single, The First Day, it’s clear that O’Brien is going big here – bigger than ever: employing thundering drums, loud and proud horns and, is that a xylophone I hear? It better be! “Feels like falling in love on the first day of the rest of your life” are lyrics that can brighten any mood, fill any room and lighten any load.
 Similarly, So Simpatico is one of the stand-out tunes from the record. But let ye be warned: upon listening you won’t be able to get it out of your head. Where other tracks are mere earworms, So Simpacto is a soulworm; it burrows deep, sets up shop and stays put. 
O’Brien’s melodies have never sounded more catchy, and the arrangements are meticulously dense as they are bright. “Last time [on 2018’s The Art of Pretending to Swim] I was doing it all by myself and I wanted to not do that this time around,” he tells The Independent. “We had four band sessions and each of them lasted maybe four or five days.” Not only did Fever Dreams open O’Brien’s eyes to the power of collaboration, as Ireland went into lockdown the record proved “a good distraction from everything else that was going on.”

And little did I know you were here all the time
In the garden you’d lie
In the depths of my mind
Like a lonesome soldier.

Growing up in Glenageary, South Dublin, O’Brien was the youngest of the family, which became an ideal position, allowing him to absorb the music of his elder siblings. Artists like The Kinks, Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix proved early influences on the soon-to-be frontman. After tinkering with the piano and quickly losing interest, O’Brien turned his obsession towards the guitar at aged 12, after being introduced to the instrument by his brother.
It wasn’t until college he set up his first band, The Immediate. The Dublin four-piece quickly garnered a modest helping of critical acclaim, with Hot Press calling their debut album, In Towers and Clouds, “the lovingly-crafted work of a team willing to explore beyond the obvious.” 
That exploration soon found O’Brien performing under the name Villagers after the band split up. Becoming a Jackal, released in 2010, saw O’Brien reach new heights; the album took the number one spot in the Irish Independent Albums Chart (IRMA) and even picked up a nomination for the Mercury Prize. But who could forget O’Brien’s performance on Jools Holland at the time. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that was one of the show’s most captivating moments – quiet, delicate and totally enthralling. It still haunts me to this day, but in a good way.

You line them up, each
passing dream
And down they fall like dominos
You want to star, but you got the supporting role.

Even Fever Dreams, for all its bright psychedelia, has plenty of sombre moments. Full of Providence is one such instance. With its stripped back production and ghostly harmonies, it counters most of the album’s frenzied exuberance with a considered, sober tone, creating a greater breadth of sound as a result.
That sound can at times recall bands like Super Furry Animals, Tame Impala and the American alt rock outfit Flaming Lips – their 1999 album, The Soft Bulletin, in particular shares many of the record’s dreamy, experimental flourishes. 
O’Brien has always shied away from explanations or elaborations when it comes to his own music. But with Fever Dreams, it’s clear the singer-songwriter is wearing his heart on his (album?) sleeve. The pandemic has taken a huge toll on many people’s mental health across the country, and – if you ask me – a fever dream is just what the doctor ordered.

Fever dreams take me right back to the start
It’s a part of the healing, so I guess that I’ll give it a whirl.

  • Lyrics by Conor O’Brien