While ostensibly a group, from the beginning Villagers have primarily been a vehicle for Conor J. O'Brien and his songs, and their stylistic shifts have been the product of O'Brien following his muse rather than an evolution prompted by an interaction between the leader and his bandmates. In case any of his fans were unclear on that, 2018's The Art of Pretending to Swim includes the credit, "All songs written, produced, performed and engineered by Conor J. O'Brien," and with O'Brien fully behind the controls, it's not surprising that this finds him stepping back from the spare, organic acoustic frameworks of 2016's Where Have You Been All My Life? Instead, this recalls the cleaner electronic textures of 2013's wayland, though O'Brien has stepped up his game since then. This music feels warmer and more naturalistic than his earlier experiments with one-man recording, and there's a gentle swing in the rhythms that suggests he's been listening to some smooth R&B lately. And while there are echoes of O'Brien's folkie inclinations in the melodies, overall this is a well-crafted exercise in adventurous but accessible contemporary pop, which sometimes stands in contrast with the lyrics. Perhaps as a product of O'Brien creating this on his own, The Art of Pretending to Swim finds him taking a deep look inward as a lyricist, with most of these songs dealing with matters of faith. O'Brien wrestles with the delicate balance of belief ("Again") and intrusive realities ("Long Time Waiting"), with the push and pull between divine and earthly love ("Love Came With All That It Brings") not far from his thoughts. While once upon a time one would expect songwriters' acoustic albums to be their most introspective, The Art of Pretending to Swim is a strong example of how one man with an unlimited number of tracks to fill can create a compelling and revealing collection of songs. If this doesn't always sound like what one would expect from Villagers, its emotional impact shows that it's clearly O'Brien's work.
AllMusic Review by Mark Deming