‘Awaylands is a far more balanced proposition than its predecessor, with much more to keep our interest across its 43 minute length, and the highlights evenly dispersed.’ – Dara Higgins no longer fears for Villagers going “all Northside Bon Iver”.
The old sophomore jinx, eh? It’s hard to come back after a succesful debut and make a decent follow up. That’s the usual way, or so they say; just ask The Futureheads, or Bloc Party. Not so with Conor J O’Brien and his Villagers. This record is finer than the debut. What it lacks, perhaps, is a stand out killer track, like Becoming a Jackal had in its title track, but that has actually worked to this album’s favour. At times it seemed as if Becoming a Jackal’s other songs were kind of supporting actors to the title tune. Like a load of Rachel MacAdams to Becoming A Jackal’s Lyndsey Lohan, sort of in thrall, kind of propping it up, aware of their place in the grand scheme. Awaylands is a far more balanced proposition than its predecessor, with much more to keep our interest across its 43 minute length, and the highlights evenly dispersed.
It’s always easy to get sucked into the amour of a first listen, but Villagers sound like they’re becoming ‘Important’ and all that entails. You know Important Music, it’s often the boring stuff that you feel you should be listening to. Maybe you have that burning desire to announce to the dinner party that you don’t actually like The National, that you find them dull, or that Low really only have one trick and are kinda preachy. You dream about this moment, and in your dream you have a beard and a girlfriend, you’re strident and you say “I don’t like The National! I dislike Wilco!” and there’s an intake of breath around the table. Then you wake up, realise you’re still in the office with your face resting in a pool of saliva and your pants around your ankles. Thank god for that. At least you didn’t commit the cardinal sin of questioning the import of Important Music.
This record is not boring however, and neither is it snootily arch. It has levels, within the playing and words, within the sounds and the production, and it reveals itself with more listening. There’s plenty going on during most tracks, and the incipient danger of O’Brien becoming an auteur, a boorishly self important singer songwriter, with the band offering occasionally plod in the background, is a mere spectre. The whole band are at play here, and they’re great. Although the first song My Lighthouse starts out with a softly plucked acoustic and sounds as if Villagers may have gone all Northside Bon Ivor, it’s a false augur, because the second track, Earthly Pleasures, takes the album off in an entirely different direction. Aided by some stellar rhythm work, and a fevered delivery of a meandering, intriguing story, it builds into a crackling of snare and cymbals. It’s the track that hooks you in.
Waves suggests that the band have been getting down with the last few Radiohead releases. Again, there’s a buzz of complementary rhythms in the background, the bippy bop of the electronics, the muted guitar, the tapping of cymbals. The song blossoms among the swells of the string arrangement. String arrangements? That’s Important Music, right there. Judgement Call nearly has a sing along chorus, and sounds like music from a sexy super market. The rolling piano chords of Nothing Arrived remind, fleetingly, of Arcade Fire’s last album. It’s a passing nod, because this is no facsimile recording, but like The Suburbs, there’s depth the recordings, and great respect given to the idea of an album, presented as a whole, as an entity, more than the sum of its parts. That’s becoming increasingly rare these days.
The Bell starts out baroque, suggesting some Ocean Rain Bunnymen bent, and brings in Will Sergeant a-like clamouring guitars to counter the gutsy bellowing. The dynamics are expertly judged, on another of the records stand out tracks. Awaylands, the song, is the antithesis of the last title track, an instrumental number that sits like a benign atoll amid the heave and ho of the rest of the album, a midway point where we can take breath before embarking on the journey through the rest of this Important Music. From here on it goes from the impressively epic, Grateful Song, “partly written out of habit, partly written out of need”, to the waltzy piano chords and mournful simplicity of In A Newfoundland You are Free, before finishing with Rhythm Composer, a song that seems a treatise on the art of songwriting itself, asking the question, who composes who, and sewing together disparate styles effortlessly. O’Brien muses on this conundrum repeatedly, throughout he seems to be in conversation with himself, with the craft he’s involved in, referencing his own words within his own words. But I won’t embarrass us all, or worse – bore us to fucking tears, with some kind of cod-psychoanalysis. Life happens to us all, some of us are better at articulating its effects than others.
The record, like all the best ones, is a journey. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. And by landfall, amid the rhythm and odd noises that convey us out of the final song, we’ll find that’s it one we’ll want to take again.