Villagers – ‘{Awayland}’

Conor J O’Brien is back with a bunch of folky anthems

Villagers have done a P!nk. The follow-up to their 2010 debut ‘Becoming A Jackal’ is called ‘{Awayland}’. Yes, with parentheses. I’m just waiting for a group to come out called . It’s surely only a matter of time. But annoying spelling aside, {Awayland} moves the Conor J O’Brien’s sound forward. ‘Earthly Pleasure’ is scuzzier than the band’s previous work, with an anthemic chorus that calls to mind The Killers. Drum machines and strange bleeps (‘The Waves’), and a vocal effect that turns O’Brien into an underwater alien (‘Grateful Song’) suggest a Radiohead influence, and freshen the sound. This is folk 2.0. ‘{Awayland}’ also seems more confident than his debut – there’s less fear and desperation in his vocals and even a jazzy piano and almost funky bassline in ‘Passing A Message’.

Despite a new boldness to the overall sound, one constant from the last album is that voice: O’Brien’s smiling-through-tears vocal that makes him sound like he’s going to explode with sorrow or joy at any minute is extraordinary. The album also retains the nostalgic, wistful narratives that made ‘Becoming A Jackal’ so enjoyable: on ‘In A New Found Land You Are Free’, a baby is “born in the bath in the month of May”; on ‘Earthly Pleasure’, O’Brien is “naked on the toilet with a toothbrush in his mouth”.

For a huge fan of the Mercury-nominated first album, though, ‘{Awayland}’ is a surprise. Where there was tension and urgency, now there’s bigger, poppier and probably more commercially viable folk songs that don’t quite pack the same punch. But poise and desperation don’t keep you on the stage – and if O’Brien’s going to keep getting slots supporting the likes of Neil Young, it could be that switching things up for a sunnier, Coldplay-esque sound is a very clever idea.
Lucy Jones