Album review: Villagers, {Awayland}, (Domino)

A super sequel as the Villagers find their voice

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The Independent Culture

Like many a gifted writer garlanded with lavish acclaim at the outset of their career, Villagers' Conor J O'Brien was wracked with self-doubt when the time came to follow up his Mercury-nominated, Ivor Novello Award-winning debut. The treadmill of two years' touring had all but crushed his creative spirit, and he hated the songs he was writing with a guitar. So he adopted an entirely different approach, re-immersing himself in youthful penchants for electronica, krautrock, funk and jazz-fusion, and creating groove soundscapes as the basis upon which to build new songs.

The results are transformative, and by the sound of it, welcomed by O'Brien's fellow Villagers, whose collective input shapes the songs much more deeply than on Becoming a Jackal. Unlike that album, {Awayland} sounds like a band, one keenly engaged in creating their own musical road as they walk upon it. Whether it's buffing the Bon Iver-esque sheen of "My Lighthouse" with sleek harmonies, or building "The Waves" from its staccato tattoo into a maelstrom of snarling guitar, pulsing synth and sweeping orchestration, these songs fizz with the excitement of creation.

O'Brien is still the fulcrum, of course, divining the issues covered in lyrics that seem to constantly tip themselves upside down or second-guess their direction. "Grateful Song" pays tribute to the god of misery, hatred etc, for providing a low point from which to bounce back; and the piano lullaby "In a Newfound Land You Are Free" likewise celebrates the mixture of grief and freedom offered by life's untrodden terrain. In "Rhythm Composer", rhythm acts as a salve for depression, but again in double-edged manner: "You're a rhythm composer, it's easy for you/But the rhythm is composing you".

Elsewhere, O'Brien tackles the warring sides of his own character in "Earthly Pleasure" and "Nothing Arrived", regretting the pleasurable indulgences distracting him from the more important aspects of life. "What were we hoping to get out of this?" he asks in the latter, "Some kind of momentary bliss?" But with results both as pleasurable, as inventive and as absorbing as these, there seems no danger that the impact of {Awayland} will be merely momentary.

Download: My Lighthouse; The Waves; Earthly Pleasure; The Bell