“Where Have You Been All My Life” is unique in that it contains no new material, but is a compilation of songs meant to distill the band’s fiveear career into one coherent narrative. The entire 12-track album was recorded in a single day, an ambitious effort to say the least.
The group was not alone in this undertaking. London’s RAK Studios, famous for having worked with such iconic artists as Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson and Pink Floyd, played host to the group as they worked with Richard Woodcraft, one of Radiohead’s producers, to reimagine and interweave old favorites with new material from “Darling Arithmetic.”
The inspiration for the album came from a recent world tour in which old songs had to be stripped down to match the band’s intimately minimalist arrangements of recent years.
Consequently, the album is fresh and spontaneous compared to the massive productions characteristic of many modern albums. All of the songs are first or second takes and are unadorned by the magic of studio trickery or overdubs. The resulting songs feature lead singer Conor O’Brien’s unadulterated vocal harmonies and guitar. As is characteristic of live albums, there is the occasional misstep that lends both character and honesty to the production.
The immediacy placed on recording an album in such a short period of time is both a blessing and a curse: while it hopefully inspires focus and attention to detail, it also precludes obsessive perfectionism. Whereas it only took a three-day recording section in 1936 for Robert Johnson to cement himself as one of the most influential Mississippi blues singer-songwriter of all time, the modern era has seen efforts like Guns N’ Roses’ 2005 album “Chinese Democracy,” famous for taking 14 years and over $13 million to record and produce.
Each arrangement on the album serves to credit the band’s chemistry. O’Brien’s flowing vocals are complemented by crisp instrumentation throughout the album. Additionally, on songs like “Everything I Am Is Yours” and “The Soul Serene,” there is a catchy and impressive call-and-response quality.
The album features the notable addition of “Memoir.” Originally written by O’Brien for Charlotte Gainsbourg’s 2011 album “Stage Whisperer,” the new take on the song prominently features a double bass and vocal harmony absent in Gainsbourg’s recording. While the latter is both haunting and airy, Villagers presents the song without the added frills of fingerpicked guitar or triangle.
“That Day”, from 2010’s “Becoming a Jackal” is the album’s standout moment, as its lyrics effectively capture a moment of pervasive sadness: “Can you hear me now/ Calling from this bed?/ I’m spitting words but there’s no meaning.” Although the song is far from an emotional high point, it is a brief period of hypnotizing perfection that effectively sets itself apart from the other 11 tracks.
“The Waves” is the most energetic track on the album, replete with a guitar that calls to mind the great Emmylou Harris and rock drums inspired by the work of U2’s Larry Mullen Jr. However, the song is not so spirited throughout. Sandwiched in the middle of the track is long, mellow instrumentation that was surely meant to serve a purpose. Unfortunately that purpose is unclear. Whereas a high-energy song would have done the album a great favor in diversity, this song loses its momentum early and drags on for over seven minutes.
The album closes with “Wichita Lineman,” a song that has so much going for it, yet regrettably somewhat feels like an afterthought. This cover of one of country music’s greatest songs is ingeniously reinvented to feature a horns section and synthesizer absent in the original recording done by Glen Campbell in 1968. The song, which has been called “the greatest pop song ever composed” and ranked at 195 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, is a sterling example of a truly existentialist country song.
In the context of the album, the song’s theme fits in beautifully: negotiating the loneliness of being a telephone line worker while longing for a distantly unattainable lover. The synthesizer echoes the line “singer in the wire,” a reference to the harp-like whine of wind blowing through telephone lines. While the song has been covered in the past by Johnny Cash, R.E.M. and James Taylor, Villagers’ take on the song feels fresh and uniquely its own, a remarkable accomplishment especially when the song was recorded in just two takes.
“Where Have You Been All My Life?” is a strong album throughout, and accurately portrays what Villagers is about once all the distractions are stripped away. The album is not the place to look for a flawless piece of contemporary indie-folk music, but rather it is a symbol of raw emotion and musicianship representative of a simpler time.
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