Album Review: Villagers – {Awayland}

Villagers“It is at once intimate and grandiose; a moving account of life’s ups and downs that elicit an utterly raw emotional response…”

Villagers  |  {Awayland}

Villagers’ sophomore release, Awayland, is a rare gem; a concept album with a story arc as beautifully crafted as its wildly imaginative and impressively composed songs.  It is at once intimate and grandiose; a moving account of life’s ups and downs as explored through a series of stories and monologues that elicit an utterly raw emotional response.  Trite as it may sound, Awaylandis a truly great record that demonstrates just how powerful music can be.

Borrowing from a wide array of influences ranging from Alt-J to Billy Joel, Death Cab to Bat for Lashes, Villagers’ Conor O’Brien manages to create a sound that is all his own, despite experimenting with so many contrasting styles.

The journey to this fantastical locale begins with an immediately disarming fingerpicked guitar on opening track, ‘My Lighthouse.’ O’Brien sings directly to the listener in a gentle, comforting tone that sounds as if he is just inches from one’s ear.  The sound of saliva sticking to his tongue and the corners of his lips is easily audible, conveying a strange sense of eroticism.  Though the song’s lush vocal harmonies are initially reminiscent of bands like Fleet Foxes and Band of Horses, they quickly move beyond, capturing their own unique voice and setting the stage for what is to come.

As with any effective concept album, Awaylandfocuses on recurring themes, exploring them from various vantage points over the course of its 11 tracks.  Shifting his subject from the listener to an unnamed man on meandering folk tale, ‘Earthly Pleasure,’ O’Brien begins to dig into the topics of malcontent and elusive fulfillment that pop up throughout the album.  He transports the character through multiple time periods and locations from verse to verse, painting a detailed picture of the protagonist before crying out in the first person, “Earthly pleasure, please ring out, from the rigors of this road…from the caverns of my soul!”  Reverb piles up, tempo slows, a feeling of madness sets in and doesn’t let go.

Progressing from track to track, experimenting with new ideas and styles along the way, Awaylandreally finds its footing amidst the groovy bassline and steady pulse of ‘Judgement Call.’  The song plays like a lesson in Pop songwriting with each subsequent line catchier than the last, and wordplay that effortlessly illustrates its concepts without ever coming across as too straightforward or too cryptic.

Villagers continue in stride, further exploring the topic of disillusion on the oddly cheery, ‘Nothing Arrived.’  O’Brien seems to celebrate his (and perhaps other young people’s) apparent lack of opportunity as he sings, “I waited for something and something died, so I waiting for nothing and nothing arrived,” in a timbre evocative of The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy. It is an anthem of youth that chooses to laugh at a bleak situation rather than let it bring him down.  While ‘The Bell’ echoes this sentiment, it does so in a more sinister tone with O’Brien pleading, “Tell me why this laughter is making you smile.”  With full horn and string sections creating a sense of danger before descending into a chorus with a swanky, shuffling swagger, the song would not sound out of place in a James Bond film.

Providing a well-placed lull after operating at full force for so long, title track ‘Awayland,’ creeps in almost unnoticed, catching the listener in its grips before one is able to process just what is happening. By the time a cluster of weeping violins enter the fold, it becomes evident that the song and the album as a whole have reached their climax.

But as soon as the song ends, it is right back to the grind, leaving no time for reflection or rest.  Villagers immediately launch into the frantic, cluttered ‘Passing a Message,’ followed by the grandiose Gospel-influenced  ‘Grateful Song.’  Though these are not standout tracks, they serve a purpose, providing a resolution during which O’Brien comes to terms with his reality, finding positive aspects of an imperfect existence.

The airy, whimsical ‘Rhythm Composer,’ is tacked on at the end of the album (to little effect), but Awayland’s true finale comes just beforehand on the aptly titled, ‘In a Newfound Land You Are Free.’ In a contemplative melancholy, O’Brien sings, “With this newfound land comes a newfound grief, but in a newfound land you are free.” It is a fitting end to an album that deals so closely with a young person’s trials and tribulations.

With Awayland, O’Brien catches the listener in their grips and don’t let go, taking one wherever he pleases.  It is a musical excursion of sorts, crossing time and space with no regard for linear narrative.  Not without its faults, the album stumbles over its own ambition from time to time, however the band’s top notch musicianship and O’Brien’s infectious sense of wonder ultimately make for an album that is as exciting on the hundredth listen as it is on the first.



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