Review: Villagers – ‘{Awayland}’

awayalndAs demonstrated by the debut album ‘Becoming A Jackal’, VillagersConor O’Brien has a real talent for stitching strong melodies to a foreboding lyric; his ominous words cosseted by a saccharine coat.

In 2010 this was rewarded with a Mercury Prize nomination and an Ivor Novello Award for ‘Best Original Song’ – two of the UK music industry’s most prodigious awards.

Yet Villagers seem to have taken the pressure and anticipation for ‘the difficult second album’ in their stride. Whereas many artists would be tempted (or pressured) to repeat the formula of their success ‘{Awayland}‘ is a progressive affair. Indeed, O’Brien seems to have tired a little of his more traditional songwriter approach and adopted other influences to keep things fresh.

‘{Awayland}’ is not going to create a distance for fans of Villagers’ debut as it takes those rudiments and enhances them to open up new, unexpected pathways. The lyrics are deeper, the textures more rounded, the picture enhanced yet deliberately distorted. These are songs that sweep you up in waves of melody while below the surface you are inherently aware of something else lurking.

Take the opening ‘My Lighthouse’ – the soft glow of tender harmonies ride a simple guitar figure, but beneath this melodic reassurance lies something darker: “And we’ll beat the ghost with our bare hands, and we’ll skin the corpse and we’ll love and laugh.” Were it not for the crystallised tremolo in O’Brien’s voice this could be Leonard Cohen. In fact, in some ways he is the modern day equivalent.

By contrast, ‘The Waves’ emits an electronic pulse that hints at Elbow’s ‘Snooks (Progress Report)’ and generates a similar air of anxiety. “Look at the cars, look at the birds and all of these invented words, one body’s dying breath is another’s birth,” he intones with staccato precision. It feels like one man’s insecurities personified and the dissonant rise in strings and bionic beats intensifies this sentiment.

This sense of uncertainty and self awareness is a recurring theme of the album, part of its DNA almost. Even when the warm embrace of ‘Nothing Arrived’ cradles you with a sense of familiarity the lyrics tell you a different story, one of distractions and regret.

Perhaps the key transformation here though is in the performances themselves. ‘Becoming A Jackal’ was a band supporting a songwriter but ‘{Awayland}’ sounds like a band being a band that just happens to have a great songwriter at its core. The signs are embossed in every song.

The Bell’ has a rasping wind ensemble and 70s TV detective agency guitar riff doubled by Hammond organ establishes a sense of urgency. ‘Grateful Song’ summons the ghost of Radiohead’s ‘(Nice Dream)’ with its swooping strings and tremolo guitar as O’Brien praises the God of tragedy, hatred, deceit and agony.

Villagers triumph remains in their construction of (often) uplifting façades to bleak underlying texts, but that’s not to say ‘{Awayland}’ is a disheartening album. There are hints, such as in ‘Rhythm Composer’, of salvation. But even this song is a double-edged sword as we learn, ‘In actuality, only the rhythm composes you’. One can only admire O’Brien’s musical and lyrical dexterity – there are more twists and turns than a corkscrew and ‘{Awayland}’ feels like a band that has finally found its feet.

It’s difficult to say how Villagers will approach the next album considering the radical progression in the last two years; perhaps they will continue to experiment further or perhaps this will be their plateau.

What we can be certain of though is {Awayland} is ‘Becoming A Jackal’ through a magnifying glass, Villagers in 3D.

(Duncan McEwan)

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