Villagers {Awayland}

[Domino; 2013]

Styles: indie folk, singer-songwriter
Others: The Immediate, Jens Lekman, David Axelrod

“I tried to write everything from the perspective of a newborn baby; given the gift of language, what would he or she say? For a while I thought the record would be called Birth, and the album cover is an image of a little boy looking out to sea, but I think that the album is about reclaiming that sense of curiosity and wonder which we have when we are children and we often lose over the years.”
– Conor J. O’Brien.

To a certain extent, Conor J. O’Brien could be seen as a victim of his own success. A chart-topping hit in his native Ireland, his band’s debut album Becoming a Jackal was nominated for a slew of awards, including the Mercury prize and Q’s Breakthrough Artist of 2010. The whirlwind of touring and television appearances that followed had transformed work that once felt so personal into something mechanical and “performative,” and in the process had undermined his entire approach to making music.

In order to find his bearings again, O’Brien turned to jazz-funk composers of the 1960s and 70s, the likes of Lalo Schifrin, David Axelrod and Jean-Claude Vannier, and appropriated some of their cinematic scope for his once-modest indie folk solo project. The difference is palpable. While the songs on {Awayland} barely break the five-minute mark at their most expansive, they pack a lot of sound into such a small space. From the horns that erupt at the conclusion of “The Waves,” to the multiple layers of brass and piano on “Passing a Message,” to the great rollicking kettledrum roll that spills over into a swell of strings on “Grateful Song,” O’Brien consistently reminds us of just how much it’s possible to do in a pop song. The best tracks on the album even sport a danceable groove that comes dangerously close to making good on the Curtis Mayfield comparison the album’s press release implies.

Out of all the artists that O’Brien name-checks, though, it’s Axelrod that stands out the most, to me. Best known perhaps for his two-album tribute to William Blake, Song of Innocence and Songs of Experience, David Axelrod seems to provide both sonic and philosophical inspiration for O’Brien. Like Blake (or, at least, what a cursory reading of Blake’s work would suggest), O’Brien holds to a belief in a kind of primordial innocence that becomes corrupted by the adult world. {Awayland} is marked, then, by a reverence for the natural world and a longing for some innate sense of awe that’s been stripped from us. When O’Brien isn’t sitting in contemplation of the sea, the sky, and the trees, he’s snidely satirizing the princes of this world with lines like “And we gotta keep the wheels in motion/ And we gotta get the kids before they grow/ God forbid they retain their sense of wonder.”

Even if you sort of agree with O’Brien’s general sentiment, the lines above probably came across a little high-handed and self-righteous. While it may be tempting to view children as blank slates brimming with innocence and natural curiosity and to blame some faceless other for driving that out of them, doing so ignores our own complicity in our corruption. In answer to the question that O’Brien poses at the top of the page, if a baby were suddenly given the power of speech, she wouldn’t spend her time waxing eloquent about waves rolling into the surf; she would demand to be fed, to be held, to be paid attention to, to have her every whim and desire gratified. It’s hard to believe in primordial innocence when science has shown that human beings are capable of lying before they even learn how to talk. When O’Brien describes a newborn child as “viciously free,” he gets closer to the heart of the matter. Infants are free — free from worry and received wisdom and the varying neuroses that afflict us all — but they are also free from empathy, from morality, and from any sense of common good. These qualities, just like wonder and curiosity, must be instilled as much as nurtured.

The naïveté underlying the album’s driving concept leads many of the songs down blind lyrical alleys, towards conclusions that are overly pat, but at least O’Brien’s facility with words makes them easier to swallow. Polysyllables dance so effortlessly off his tongue that it’s hard not to be swept along in the surge of language. The finest example by far would have to be, “Earthly Pleasure,” a song that opens with its protagonist sitting “Naked on the toilet with a toothbrush in his mouth” and finds him transported into a military conflict in the year 1822, and finally into the presence of some celestial noblewoman. O’Brien’s delivery becomes increasingly frantic with each shift in setting so that, by the song’s final verse, the words seem to spray out of him like soda from a pre-shaken can.

As an exercise in artfully executed pop maximalism, {Awayland} is unquestionably a treat. The songs are more vibrant and adventurous than anything Villagers have recorded previously. O’Brien’s arrangements are flawless, and he manages to interweave a lot of different sounds and textures without letting them overrun the essential integrity of the compositions. Add to that his skill at writing and delivering complex lyrical structures and you have a powerful songwriting force. All he needs now is something worth saying.

Links: Villagers - Domino

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