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Villagers
{Awayland} Matthew Foster , January 14th, 2013 07:00

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I'm not sure whether you've personally scooped an Ivor Novello and been tipped for a Mercury before the age of thirty, but if you have, I imagine you're tempted to keep on singing the same song until the whole world is at your feet. Not so for Conor O'Brien, the restless writer around whom Ireland's Villagers revolve.

While touring 2010′s excellent Becoming A Jackal, O'Brien claims he grew worried that endless repetition of the same lovelorn material risked becoming "somehow performative": a day job at best, fraudulent at worst. {Awayland}, then, plays out like a reaction to being pegged early on as an honest, confessional, folky singer-songwriter, although it's a lot less calculated and a lot more playful than that might suggest. For the first time, Villagers are a full band on record, and O'Brien's songs now twist and turn where before they were content being simply stark and pretty.

Here's a challenge for you. Find a better opening line in 2013 than this one: "naked on the toilet with a toothbrush in his mouth, when he suddenly acquired an overwhelming sense of doubt". If you need to consult the source material, you'll find it setting the scene on the record's second track, 'Earthly Pleasure', a runaway train of a song that is part time-travelling adventure, part-Bond theme, part-cabaret, and fully brilliant. Elsewhere, the intro to 'The Bell' cribs from Del Shannon's 'Runaway' and makes a run for it: Hammond organ stabs and high drama await, as O'Brien worries, like anyone with half a brain writing pop in 2013 surely must, that "all's been said".

'The Waves' builds around a syncopated bleep and revels in sparkling word-play, pitting "honeybee cemeteries" against "well-insulated dignitaries". At 3:15, the ground opens up and the rhythm section drops out, leaving O'Brien's voice to float above it all for a while, before a bracing cacophany of thrashy guitar plays us out. 

The best touches on {Awayland}, though, only reveal themselves after a bit of bedding-in. O'Brien is great at turning a track on its head just as the listener's getting settled. 'Grateful Song', when it begins, could easily be mistaken for a simple love song swiping bits from Radiohead's 'Nice Dream': listen more closely and it's anything but. It turns out not to be some swooning girl O'Brien is proclaiming his gratitude to, but rather, the god of "pain… tragedy… hatred… deceit and hapless, helpless agony", being thanked for keeping the singer in song-writing material. How's that for confessional?

'In A Newfound Land You Are Free', likewise, starts out as a hopeful hymn to a newborn child who is "viciously free". After a crash of drums suggests it's about to burst into an arena-sized, grandiose display of schmaltz, the band steps back from the brink and we're left with piano, guitar and O'Brien's hushed voice testifying to "a lifetime too brief". "With this newfound land comes this newfound grief", he sings, and what seemed to be a case-closed tribute ends up taking us somewhere darker.

While we don't get anything quite like the howling-wolf outro of Jackal's unhinged 'Pieces' anywhere on {Awayland}, we do get the bluesy, goofy closer 'Rhythm Composer', which is more than a little baffling and ends, as all songs from this point onwards really should, with an eeyoring donkey over radio static. Such indulgences are the price we pay for a straight run of brilliant writing: getting that donkey out of his system probably allowed O'Brien to write the evergreen R.E.M-esque earworm 'Nothing Arrived', so be thankful.

{Awayland} is a treasure trove of an album, brimming with ideas, most of which work and all of which, at the very least, prove that O'Brien is not simply another little-boy-lost lamenting the fact his parents wouldn't pass him the salt, but a songwriter of real note. Of all the lines from this sad, funny, exuberant and brilliant record that I now wish to have tattooed across my face, I think I've settled for this from 'Judgment Call': "we've gotta get the kids before they grow / God forbid they retain their sense of wonder". Consider mine rediscovered.

JB
Jan 16, 2013 2:07pm

Excellent review. I'm compelled to investigate....

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Sep 4, 2013 12:21am

Rhythm composer is a song from the perspective of a roland drum machine and 'in a newfound land..' is a song about his sister who passed away. Wonderful album.

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