Saturday 21 April 2018

Assured Villagers are taking on the world

album of the week





Becoming a Jackal won widespread acclaim on release three years ago, bagging Mercury and Choice nominations and some of the most euphoric reviews ever garnered by a debut Irish album. Few of those smitten were surprised when its creator Conor O'Brien – Villagers' founder, tunesmith and veritable one-man cottage industry – was rewarded with an Ivor Novello songwriting award.

Meticulously crafted, erudite songs that retain a sense of mystery don't come along that often, so it's little wonder the Dubliner has been anointed from on high. But with euphoric praise comes pressure too – can the ex-Immediate man possibly live up to expectations?

{Awayland} proves beyond doubt that he can. If anything, this follow-up album is a stronger offering than its illustrious predecessor. It boasts a collection of bewitchingly beautiful tracks that capture an assured artist at the top of his game. It flits from delicate folk ruminations (My Lighthouse) to robust rock-outs (Judgement Call).

It captivates from early listens, but truly enriches those who allow O'Brien's carefully chosen words and artfully arranged music to seep in.

While the album boasts several uplifting songs – not least the gorgeously playful, Neil Hannon-esque closer Rhythm Composer – an air of sadness can be detected just below the surface.

The sudden death of O'Brien's sister shortly after the release of Becoming a Jackal has, he has said, informed several of the tracks – although his oblique lyrics don't appear to directly address this heartbreak.

O'Brien is a poetic lyricist and a keen observer of life's peaks and troughs. His preoccupations – not to mention words – are rarely prosaic: think of the sybaritic figures that feature in one of his more immediate songs, Earthly Pleasure, or the stream-of-consciousness, allegorical communication employed on this album's startling lead single, The Waves.

The latter song boasts sonic ambition in spades, especially in its frantic second half which builds to an intoxicating climax. And there's a similar desire to push the boundaries elsewhere, not least on The Bell. Yet, O'Brien's gold-dust is present on even the album's most slight moment – the short, purely instrumental title track.

Much of {Awayland}'s strength is derived from the fact that it feels like an album made by a band – and the four young men who share the Villagers moniker with O'Brien certainly make their presence felt on these elegantly textured tracks. Praise must go to the band's guitarist, Tommy McLaughlin, not just for his playing, but for his exemplary production job on this album. (He also helmed Villagers' debut and his skills at the mixing desk should encourage many to seek him out at his Donegal studio.)

Key tracks The Waves; Earthly Pleasure; Rhythm Composer

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