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A quick glance at the latest issue of Mojo magazine will reveal a striking and somewhat grotesque illustration of Villagers songwriter and singer, Conor O’Brien. Drawn as a Slaughter House Five reading fetus that is sharing space with a gecko in the belly of an ocean wave, the image itself is a bit too psychedelic and “Freak out!” compared to Villagers’ more so cerebral and thoughtful songwriting. Awayland, Villagers’ second album, is grandstanding in the sense that it certainly follows some popular folk trends (the arena filling histrionics, namely), but there is a warmth and intimacy to both O’Brien’s writing and vocal delivery. There is also a nice amount of inventiveness and risk-taking, something that those big arena-folk bands wouldn’t dare to trundle around the world at risk of losing their bland, encompassing appeal.
The most obvious comparison is Bright Eyes’ Connor Oberst. Not only do they almost share the same name, but they also seem to draw inspiration from the same, deep well of emotions; the same kind of songwriting that is intent on baring one’s soul in the biggest and grandest way possible. Similarly, they also have leanings towards electronic music; though Oberst’s is much more prog influenced than O’Brien’s Postal Service-esque “The Waves”. Released as Awayland’s first single, it is both a departure from his typically folk music and not indicative of what the rest of the album sounds like. This is probably for the best as, despite the song’s glitched-out coda and Frippertronic-esque guitar solo, O’Brien’s fragile voice lends itself to his more introspective and intimate moments. Despite his best efforts, his subdued voice sometimes fails to match the power of his backing music.
“The Bell” is the best merger of these electronic-influences. Moving along to a metronomic beat and haunting strings, the song builds and drops with O’Brien smartly allowing the instrumentation to take the lead in more of the powerful moments. “Earthly Pleasure”, another album highlight, rolls along with a paranoid verse, briefly putting the brakes on the darkness with a huge chorus.
Most of Awayland is filled with more folk inspired arrangements with subtler orchestral and electronic accompaniment, but the introverted and paranoid feeling persists throughout the album. “Passing a Message” grooves along to a funky bassline and punctuating horns, while still sounding like a folk song, and “Grateful Song” slowly grows into an orchestrated mess that constantly dissolves and reforms.
“Rhythm Composer” follows the same blueprint but the strings are softer and the sentiment is sweeter and uplifting. Closing out the album with the line: “The old black dog is on your back/But if you tame it you can get it to sit/So don’t mind it, no don’t mind it”, perhaps this is O’Brien’s admission that chasing the muse can take you to different, maybe terrifying, areas. The song itself ends on an arpeggiated chord played on a synth, a more subtle push towards his possible electronic future.
Awayland isn’t a brave step into a new frontier, but it certainly is nice to hear a musician that is refusing to fit into the corner that critics and fans have placed him in. Reliability is nice and all, but a great musician knows that songwriting is a chance to expand the palette, discover sounds, and open up new frontiers. Awayland is O’Brien’s small step into the world outside of his original sound and, while the result isn’t as thrilling as one would hope, it certainly will leave many hoping for another glimpse into his constantly growing sound.