Villagers – {Awayland}

Conor O’Brien’s quiet folk ramblings on his astounding debut Villagers album ‘Becoming a Jackal’, netted him appearances on a number of end-of-year best of lists, a Mercury Prize nomination and a legion of loyal fans after tours with the likes of Cathy Davey and Elbow. Whereas on the debut record, it was mainly a solo project with Conor playing the majority of instruments, for new album {Awayland}, Conor has drafted in the bandmates from his live show on to the album to provide a fuller Villagers sound. When ‘The Waves’ was released towards the tail-end of 2012, it took many by surprise with its distinctly electro feel and psychedelic video. How will the rest of this album compare?

The opener ‘My Lighthouse’ is very indiscreet introduction and could have fitted on ‘Becoming a Jackal’, it’s a quiet and subdued opening as Conor once again pours his heart out in that most heartfelt of ways. It opens with the line: “You are needing a friend”. It’s not likely to make those who criticised Villagers for being a little too twee re-evaluate their opinions, but with the gentle strums of acoustic guitar, for those who love the band, it’s good to have him back. ‘Earthly Pleasures’ showcases the new direction a bit more as Conor almost speaks his way through the opening verse where he mentions someone being ‘Naked on the toilet with a toothbrush in his mouth, when he suddenly acquired an overwhelming sense of doubt’ (‘Hit the Switch’ anyone?). As the song progresses further, the narrative appears to be heading in an ever darker direction with Conor’s gentle vocals taking on more urgency, with the band upping the ante with the electric guitar riffs providing an atmospheric backdrop. It’s unlike anything the band have tried before and this trend continues throughout ‘The Waves’ and ‘Judgment Call’, both leaning heavily towards a more electronic sound although the latter even has hints of post-rock as Conor strains himself to deliver the line: ‘It’s a judgment call’.

‘Nothing Arrived’ sees Conor in more familiar territory with a track that recalls ‘Cast of Thousands’-era Elbow. Piano led, it is one of those songs that appear instantly familiar. It’s been all over 6Music’s playlist and could fit just as easily across all the other radio stations, even including Radio 1! There’s a stirring anthemic quality and has the spirit of The Crimea. ‘I waited for something, but nothing arrived’ is the main hook of the song. The lyrics throughout remain as compelling as ever, with ‘The Bell’ opening with the line ‘There is a sleeping dog’. The track itself sounds somewhere between Tindersticks and the soundtrack to a spy film. The title track of the album itself is a tantalisingly delicate two and a half minutes. ‘I was carving my name out of a giant sequoia tree’ opens the funky bass-led ‘Passing a Message’ while also talking about listening to folks on TV who talk about nothing he’s interested in. Although somewhat understated, there’s an angry undercurrent running throughout and then halfway through the pianos crash in taking it in an even more avant-garde jazz direction. The soaring violins open ‘Grateful Song’, and while it threatens to become overblown, the echoes and distorted effects at 3 minutes show a band who know exactly what they are doing. ‘We are thankful for the misery’ is sure to be up there among the best lines of the year too.

The closing ‘Rhythm Composer’ has a magical feel as it opens with sparkling violins and an uplifting drumbeat, complemented by some charming glockenspiel. There’s more talk about dogs as Conor mentions ‘That old black dog is on your back’. After all this majesty, the song takes on a Paul Simon or cabaret direction with brass coming to the fore, before a final minute of bleeps, electro vibes and what appears to be animal noises. Although there are enough delicate and gentle moments to keep fans of Villagers’ debut album happy, it really is the adventurous spirit and new direction that makes {Awayland} such a triumph.

Listen to {Awayland} on Spotify.

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