The title of Villagers’ fourth album suggests that Conor O’Brien is floundering, or at least treading water in some way as he navigates the turbulent currents of the music business.
After just one listen to this collection, however, all notions of inflatable armbands and blundering through the doggy paddle are drowned out. O’Brien – the chief architect behind the Dublin band – has exhibited an astounding depth of emotional maturity and musical wisdom throughout his career as Villagers, and before that with still-missed art-popsters The Immediate.
Each solo album of his, from the intricate songcraft of Becoming a Jackal to the subtle boundary-pushing pop of Awayland and the comparatively skeletal framework of the soul-searching Darling Arithmetic, has been quietly revelatory, establishing the thirtysomething songwriter as one of our finest for myriad reasons – not least his penchant for a catchy hook.
In short, there is a comforting familiarity to O’Brien’s songwriting, no matter what new style he is road-testing or what sounds and instruments he is adding or subtracting to his repertoire.
Now, after the confessional palette-cleansing of 2015's Darling Arithmetic – which was recorded, produced, played and mixed by O'Brien – it's time to have a little fun. Although this album was recorded in a similarly self-sufficient manner, the austerity of that collection is largely gone here.
In fact, The Art of Pretending to Swim was originally foreseen as an experimental side project largely based around electronica before, as he put it himself, he "ruined it by putting words in".
Still, it means that many of these songs find a brisk, finger-clicking groove pretty quickly, whether it's the the twitchy buzz of opening track Again or the fluttering acoustic framework of Real Go-Getter, while lead single A Trick of the Light is both instantly likeable and impossibly nifty with its irresistible soft swell of strings.
Perhaps most important in terms of the overall tone of this album is its sense of musical abandon. O’Brien has also recently spoken of the self-revelation that every album doesn’t necessarily need to be a po-faced, worthy affair – that it’s perfectly acceptable to entertain your audience without second-guessing what they may be reading into.
There's no better example of this than on Long Time Waiting, its skittering beat and thunk of piano giving way to squiggles of electronics before building to a celebratory, brass-laden climax.
None of this means that O'Brien's lyric sheet is any less thoughtful than usual. There is self-examination in abundance with songs such as Real Go-Getter, Long Time Waiting and Hold Me Down ("I've seen the dawn, but there's something in the way and I can't get out") suggesting that some irksome knots in his psyche remain kinked.
Other ear-catching lines – such as A Trick of the Light's "It's time that I let go of things I can't control" signal a willingness to resign his fate to a higher power. The wistful Ada, meanwhile, is a tribute to 19th-century mathematician Ada Lovelace framed amid a marvellously dreamy 1970s folk vibe akin to something from Father John Misty's catalogue, while Sweet Saviour is similarly mournful and meditative.
It may be O’Brien’s most instinctive album to date, but intimacy, melody and good old-fashioned songcraft clearly remain as important as ever. If this is merely the art of pretending to swim, his podium finish – however far in the future it may be – ought to be truly Olympian.