The man with the choir-boy countenance and the talent for intricate wordplay is back. Conor J O’Brien and Villagers’ second album is a tougher, meaner set than his acclaimed debut. It beats faster and unlike the hesitant quality of Becoming a Jackal, an album of chilly desolation amid the warmth, the singer sounds bruised, feral and even angry in places. [Awayland] may begin with acoustic fumbling and the sonorous vocals of a singer songwriter but after that, it becomes an entirely different beast.
And beast is not a word you’d usually associate with Villagers. The tangle of Earthly Pleasures, for example, escalates into a full-blown psychodrama where we’re transported back to 1822 to meet a girl who speaks Esperanto and drinks jasmine tea on a song that bristles ominously as it clatters to a grandstanding finale. The Morse code dots and dashes that intro The Waves are a series of frequency modulations that sound like a transmission from a lost era. Judgement Call is syncopated and propulsive near rock song that ends with Beatlely symphonics and speeded-up backward loops while on the superb Passing a Message, insistent bass and tremulous organ trills frame a strange lyric that ends in the sound of an analogue radio detuned to longwave dissonance.
So there’s a lot going on here. [Awayland] teems with ideas for sure and for best results use headphones and dial it up to 11. It was recorded during an exhaustive sojurn in Donegal and this is very much a band album with a real sense of craft and application. Tommy McLaughlin’s guitar playing is exemplary and O’Brien has described the strings, arranged by Cormac Curran, as “drippy” Debussy-like and “Spielberg-y”. Worked up from "amibent sound scapes", the songs rarely fall back onto the conventional when there are winding passages and dark byroads to explore. But even the more straght-forward things here are gorgeous - the piano-led Nothing Arrived is wonderful and the title track, a few scant but lovely minutes of an instrumental interlude, recalls the ornate chamber pop of Villagers’ recent tour mates Grizzly Bear.
O’Brien’s love of language and how words work is stronger too and once again he’s back wondering, half in awe and half needing to understand, the actual mechanics of song writing. On the title track of the first album he cautioned that he was selling us an elaborate conceit and on the intricate The Bell we are warned “there is a sleeping dog beneath this dialogue” and that “there is a passenger within every useless word”.
The Waves talks of “all these invented words” while on Rhythm Composer, he concludes that the song “composes you”. That track contains some cute lines (“your BPM got a MRI” anyone?) and some rinky dinky, Beach Boys-go-barber-shop harmonising from the band as O’Brien urges us to throw off “that old black dog on your back.” There is always hope and joy in the music. And, of course, farm animals - Rhythm Composer ends with a sample of local donkey braying against burbling synths. O'Brien's old mate Jape would certainly approve.
Are there big issues on [Awayland]? Well, on Earthly Pleasures “Lucifer is in our court and Beelzebub is in our bank”. You can read into that what you will but the title is not a reference to emigration; it’s more a wistful hope that there is another, better place somewhere. O’Brien says that he wanted to get back to a more child-like way of seeing life and a terribly sad family bereavement has made him sit bolt upright in his grief to stare down the world with a fresh set of eyes and ears. On Grateful Song, which owes something to Maurice Jarre’s Lara’s Theme, he counts off the gods of pain, sorrow and revenge but shakes off the gloom with this sentiment, “we are grateful for the misery from which we stole this grateful song.”
Vocally, O’Brien is not exactly Caruso and maybe once or twice (on the crescendos of The Bell) he struggles to keep up with the melodrama of the music. Some of the quieter moments also sound distressingly like those serious young men with big acoustic guitars that haunted Dublin a decade ago. But [Awayland] succeeds admirably because it’s elegant, poised and ballsy all at the same time.
Villagers have taken the dusty conventions of song-writing and looked at them from fresh and new angles in their unified urge to make music that is physical and uplifting. They've more than succeeded. These are deep songs for a shallow world.