I should start with a big fat apology. I begged an advance copy from Domino then missed the release date because of a book. Not the best excuse but the book in question should lend my slackness a measure of respectability and possibly atonement. I have been engrossed in Nick Coleman's "The Train in the Night: A Story of Music and Loss". Reading the memoir of a music writer whose world imploded when he suffered sudden hearing loss left me humbled. I sit here most nights looking for new music and assume I understand the hold it has over me. However reading one man's attempt to retrace his own personal journey into a world of music, analyse his taste, and relive musical memories and milestones without hearing a note; left me examining my own nexus. What if this source of limitless pleasure was snatched away? What if colourful sounds were replaced with white noise? Could I cope if crippling agony prevented me from connecting with music again? I digress but that's the reason this is late - I was reading a book. A very good book though. You should read that book. Sorry.
I've been waiting for what seems like an unfair while for the new Villagers album but pre-cursory singles "The Waves" and "Nothing Arrived" reassured me the follow-up to 2010's (Mercury Nominated) "Becoming a Jackal" would be worth the wait. Conor J. O'Brien's debut charmed, mystified and haunted in equal measure piercing my shell on first contact. Within a matter of weeks I saw them supporting Elbow at Sheffield Arena, practically melded the cd with the inner workings of my car stereo and caught an intimate headlining gig at Brudenell. Being a fan gave me concerns though. I was worried this could make me complacent when it came to writing a review. So to try and ensure I listened objectively to "Awayland" I borrowed from Coleman's approach to reviews. I set out to "Listen to the music. Listen to it uncritically. Listen to it for pleasure, then listen to it again and pretend I'm somebody else listening to it...then, listen to it again with my own ears and enjoy it all over again as myself." (See, being distracted by a book has its uses). It didn't seem to matter under what guise I worked though, it emitted the same positive allure on every play and each time I liked it more.
Rich and intelligently crafted lyrics roasted in enchanting melodies and wrapped with the perfect enunciation idiosyncratic of O'Brien's musical terroir; "Awayland" is everything the Villagers' second album needed to be to further propel his reinvention of the modern day troubadour. The dreaded difficult second album obstacle is adeptly side-stepped and the bar raised higher than fans could have expected or hoped for. It's the wordplay, the delicacy of the composition, the use of the black keys, the whimsical nature of the music juxtaposed with the often cutting themes behind the imagery of the lyrics that does something to me deep inside. I'm always surprised when I bring Villagers up in conversation that more people aren't in the know. On the strength of the first album I'd call that a shame but now considering the new album I'm close to upgrading that and calling shenanigans on the whole subject.
Musically there are bolder statements to discover and a complexity to the production which shapes a rewarding depth to the album. The naïve beginnings on songs like "Judgement Call" are as irresistibly effective as earlier releases but the scope within the songs transforms them to reveal stunning technical progression in the sound O'Brien and friends are capable of creating. For further evidence of the more developed offerings the electro-acoustic values of "Earthly Pleasure" and "The Waves" will tick all the right boxes. The climax of "The Waves" is addictively tense and punctuates the gentle flow of the song to that point with stark interjection and statement. If what you liked about "Becoming a Jackal" was its more traditional folksy moments then try "My Lighthouse"- as beautiful and heartfelt an opener as you could wish for - and "Nothing Arrived" which displays similar melodic, rousing elements as you'll hear on the debut, or "Passing A Message". "The Bell" on the other hand walks a line between the two albums and shows off a wonderful split in personality: it's the deftly paced, ambling folk of whispered stories and it's the feral, untamed beast shining through; all in one song.
The titular track acts as an instrumental bridge between sides one and two (digital listeners, disregard) - a gentle interlude shifting the attention away from the melting pot of sounds from the previous song. "Grateful Song" follows which is one of my highlights in terms of production but then I'm a sucker for well-placed strings. (See "Judgement Call" for more grandiose strains in that respect). O'Brien gets the orchestration as right here as he does everything else on "Awayland". Two brilliant albums as Villagers under his belt (earlier modest, more localised success came for him in The Subterraneans and The Immediate) and this achieved by the age of thirty. This is impressive not only because of the body of work he's created so far but because it means there is more to come from the talented fresh-faced chap from Dún Laoghiare. On reflection, I'm not too worried if it's a couple of years in between albums if it means the next one is as good as the first two.
Villagers will be live at The Wardrobe on Tuesday 12th Feb. https://www.lunatickets.co.uk/event_page.php?eventID=2137 or http://www.ticketweb.co.uk/checkout/event.php?eventId=VPF0802 will take you to a link to (hopefully) buy your ticket but be quick: as I write this both Jumbo & Crash appear to have sold their allocations. Treat yourself to a brilliant night watching one of the most achingly original artists around at one of the city's coolest live venues. And because I want to make sure you can now go and buy this utterly ace album here's another handy link http://www.dominorecordco.com/uk/albums/21-09-12/awayland for all the usual formats available direct from Domino Records. Or really treat yourself and support charity into the bargain and get the Deluxe Digital version here http://www.fairsharemusic.com/release/awayland-digital-deluxe . (This last site has some very reasonable prices on new releases and pre-releases - well worth a look).