by Rob Wilson

During an eventful four years that has seen them grow quickly from playing first-on-the-bill live shows with barely any rehearsal time to supporting Tracy Chapman and embarking on tours of their own, Irish indie-folk band Villagers put themselves very much on the map with their Mercury Prize nominated debut release, Becoming a Jackal, back in 2010. Since then they’ve opened for acts such as Grizzly Bear and Elbow, appeared on Jools Holland and now here we are: the fifth year of Villagers’ existence – and to mark the occasion they’ve released their sophomore album, {Awayland}.

But let’s take it back a few months to September 2012 – Villagers are about to release a new single for the first time in nearly two years. As the play button is clicked around the world, fans and newly interested listeners prepare themselves for whatever sound they’re about to hear, eagerly waiting for the confident strum of an acoustic guitar, or the strike of a piano – two key building blocks of Villagers’ debut release. But what they get is something else; they are given a sign that Villagers are moving forward confidently.

That single, ‘The Waves’ (track three on {Awayland}), opens with a light bleeping and a computerised bass drum that gives off the impression that Villagers have taken a giant stride sideways in terms of musical direction. This stride is slightly straightened, though, by an acoustic riff that gives those eager fans a calming sense of familiarity and relief as the old is introduced carefully to the new and takes Villagers to somewhere they’ve never been before. In fact, ‘The Waves’ is simply a mere taster of the creativity and cohesive diversity that Villagers display without fear during the first half of {Awayland}.

The album itself opens with ‘My Lighthouse’, which transforms from a lonely guitar simply strumming to nothing but itself into a fully living and breathing beauty. The acoustic guitar is eventually accompanied by a set of multi-tracked vocal harmonies that hum richly around the mix before moving effortlessly into the first impressive 1-2-3-4 combination punch of the year. This begins with ‘Earthly Pleasures’, where front-man and lead producer Conor O’Brien sounds confident and assured as he tells the story of a desperate man over shuffling drums and syncopated guitar riffs that bubble underneath before reaching the boil and exploding into a huge climactic result.

The creativity continues with previously mentioned lead-single, ‘The Waves’, before sliding into ‘Judgement Call’, which sounds detailed and careful enough in terms of progression and knowledge regarding when and where to place more experimental ideas to be worthy of appearing on a Grizzly Bear album. This continues as ‘The Bell’ arrives, beginning with syncopated drum patterns against loud brass and clunky piano before making way for O’Brien’s intimate vocals – his delivery and annunciation clearer than ever. The hook, “Off goes the bell / ringing through my head” is soft, but eerie and subliminal as the introspective O’Brien whispers carefully, his dreamy voice leading the listener to an uncertain paradise. And then the title track, a gorgeous instrumental piece that, just like all of the songs preceding it, starts off small and ends up powerful; strings fade in behind more delicate acoustic guitar work before taking the forefront and sharing the main melody with more distant vocals that are caked in reverb.

It’s here that the inevitable happens, however – the album does take a slight downturn in memorability and impact. On ‘Passing a Message’, O’Brien’s voice simply fails to arrest the listener as easily as it does through the rest of the album – his voice almost hidden in the mix, which means that the usual closeness and friendliness of his voice isn’t expressed as clearly as before. This continues on ‘Grateful Song’ – O’Brien’s whisper only becomes as haunting as before once water droplet effects are applied to it. That’s not to say these two tracks are weak – Villagers’ still show their ability to build a song carefully, adding in a drum roll here and a string section there to introduce the penultimate track, ‘In a Newfoundland, You Are Free’, on which O’Brien’s welcoming voice returns to its most beautiful peak. This would be the perfect closer and a reasonable metaphorical reference to Villagers’ progression as a band.

But the closer itself, ‘Rhythm Composer’, makes me glad that this isn’t the case. Working as another chance for Villagers’ to show their ability to meticulously build songs from fragile children to fully grown adults, as each bar passes an instrument different from the last is thrown into the mixture before two horns, a squealing pig and sequenced blipping appear briefly and fade to silence, closing the tale of {Awayland} with a metaphorical reference to nature, whilst showing that Villagers do wish to move forward again in the next four or five years.

One disappointment, if I had to pick one, is the half-abandonment of the electronic elements of the album’s earlier tracks that made it immediately engaging from the beginning. It seemed like Villagers were ready to scream that they were moving forward quickly and confidently, but as the album progresses their direction becomes a little less clear. But this does not take much away from {Awayland}, because, when all is said and done, it is a gorgeous album – not only does it have an almost universal appeal that ranges from it being cool enough for kids to pleasant enough for those not wanting too much of a musical challenge, it also has O’Brien’s superb voice that possesses so many qualities,(from arresting intimacy to distant whispers that lead the listener to his world, like a cartoon character being led by its nose along a cloud of scent that rises from a blueberry pie) and Villagers’ knowledge on how to, simply put, write a bloody good song when they feel like it. An early contender for album of the year? You betcha.