Conor O'Brien's Villagers second album (Awayland), as the title suggests, is an ambitious and immersive effort that's primarily concerned with creating its own dreamscape. It's a bigger record both in terms of scope and execution than their 2010 debut, the Mercury nominated Becoming A Jackal. This new set of songs isn't always successful though, as they get bogged down within O'Brien's dense and occasionally psychedelic narrative, but there is much to admire here.
It's also interesting to see O'Brien expanding his musical palette, while letting the rest of the band undertake some of the heavy lifting. The most welcome addition is the subtle electronica that bubbles to the surface of some of the compositions. There's also some impressive harmonising from the band throughout.
The key track for understanding the intention and part of the problem with (Awayland) is 'Earthly Pleasure'. Following the decidedly more sedate and concise opener 'My Lighthouse', O'Brien details the daydream of his protagonist. The use of an electronic vocal stutter as he sets the scene ("Naked on the toilet with a toothbrush in his mouth. He suddenly acquired an overwhelming sense of self-doubt. Every single piece of baggage he'd been holding on his back was beginning to dig in and his back began to crack".) is effective. However as strings begin to swirl and guitars become more frenzied the lyrics descend into a somewhat confusing stream of consciousness narrative. Ultimately that's the problem with some of the material here, the lyrical detours sometimes feel too clever for their own good.
Some of the later tracks get the balance right though, with O'Brien's warm voice drawing you into tracks like 'Grateful Song' and 'Rhythm Composer'. Thematically there's an undercurrent of seaside imagery and the innocence of youth behind many of the songs that create the aural journey to (Awayland). But perhaps it's telling that the title track which is one of the strongest of the set, is actually an instrumental.
While (Awayland) is musically adventurous and shares some of the darker traits of the first Villagers album, it's also a dramatic departure from quite what you'd expect from a second record. It verges on being a concept album and displays a confidence that signals good things for future material. While it has problems, you wonder whether some of them are intentionally high concept jokes, that's probably why the last sound you hear is a braying donkey then.