Review: Villagers – {Awayland}

villagers-awayland-artwork

5

 

Villagers’ 2010 debut album Becoming A Jackal garnered Conor O’Brien and his bandmates a Mercury nomination, an Ivor Novello Award, widespread critical acclaim and an army of dedicated fans. No wonder, then, that O’Brien has admitted in interviews to a stifling sense of foreboding on beginning to write the follow-up, {Awayland}.

A two-year life storm of industry attention, intense touring and high-profile accolades did not lend itself well to a smooth song-writing process. In retaliation, O’Brien decided to draw on some diverse influences, both to slap his creative brain back into life, and to further involve his bandmates. As a result, {Awayland} contains fewer thrillingly urgent carnal, dark corners, and more unlikely techno, jazz and Motown influences. It’s fine, though. Actually, it’s really good.

A number of the song names imply a journey – My Lighthouse, The Waves, the eponymous {Awayland}, In A Newfound Land You Are Free – with images of the sea taking precedence. It is lilting and buoyant, confident and focused. It has a destination: a new, distinctive sound which renders the band more than just O’Brien plus some other good people, difficult to define and incomparable.

Alongside these louder, more confident and upbeat songs sit the haunting, delicate creations that we know Villagers for: arresting lyrics, at one moment joyous and vibrant, the next desolate and vulgar, dissonance and unexpected but perfect key changes, and O’Brien’s simultaneously youthful and jaded vocal, so precisely placed and punctuated that it risks stealing the focus from everything else.

Passing A Message lacks the musical invention and lyrical boldness of the rest of the record, and O’Brien frequently mentions ‘this song’, which always feels like padding for me. Other than these little quibbles, though, it’s as good as I’d dearly hoped it would be.  The Waves seeps wide-eyed wonder, My Lighthouse is a belly-flipper, and {Awayland} a tearjerker. Villagers elicit physical reactions; I don’t understand how anyone could fail to be moved by the sounds they make and the images they create. Each track is a new and different joy.

Anna Byrne

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