Now that the dust has had a chance to settle in the wake of the nominations for the 2010 Barclaycard Mercury Prize and both press and public have had a chance to get over the usual furore the annual announcement brings (including the now traditional 'Who on earth are they?'), it would appear that most opinions are leaning towards a victory for London band The xx. However, when it comes to this award, a nod from the bookies has often proved to be the kiss of death for many a band in the past, so perhaps now is the perfect time to turn our attentions to one of the more discreet of the 12 nominations, Becoming a Jackal, the debut album from Irish singer-songwriter Conor J O'Brien under the pseudonym Villagers.
In an age where a great deal of significance is attached to speed and concision, the ability to get your message across without taking up other people's precious time, many bands understandably choose to open their albums firing on all cylinders, throwing everything they've got at their listeners in a sometimes desperate bid to maintain the interest of their audience and the funding of their record label. No such tactic is adopted on Becoming a Jackal, O'Brien choosing instead to ensnare your ears by stealth. Opener 'I Saw the Dead' quickly traces a distinct musical landscape of chilling timbres, piano, organ, strings and percussion artfully blended against an eerie invitation: 'Have you got just a minute? Are you easily led? Let me show you the backroom where I saw the dead'. Like a horror film you just can't look away from, it's a track that hooks you there and then, emerging from a trance-like state into something altogether harder hitting before slipping away once more to an ending so ominous that it will still shock you after multiple listens.
O'Brien immediately alters his formula, throwing you headlong into the macabre romance of the title track, its rhythmical meanderings akin to a musical soul-search. By the time the infectious stomp of 'Ship of Promises' and the tender confession of 'The Meaning of the Ritual' have been reached, it is becoming clear how truly unique and original this artist is. While dozens of influences could probably be identified if they were searched for (for example, the former track echoes ELO while the latter identifies with the balladry of Richard Hawley), such an exercise is ultimately fruitless. Villagers doesn't really 'sound like' anything or anyone in the business today, least not in this year's Mercury category.
Lyrically too, O'Brien is in a league of his own, swinging somewhere between neo-romance and nightmare. He deftly handles his subject matter with insight and maturity, 'Home' being a prime example; here the startling imagery of disturbed family values and a society in disarray is fascinatingly pitched against playful musical material and an endearing repeated refrain 'Can you call me when we're almost halfway?'.
The liner notes state that all music on the record, with the exception of French horn and strings, is performed by O'Brien, a total credit to his facilities as a musician when taking into account how professional and unique a sound he has created. Pulling off a project in such style requires astute judgement and an awareness of his capabilities and strengths as a performer. Vocally he is alluringly mercurial: disturbed in the morose album opener, endearing in the whimsical 'The Pact (I'll Be Your Fever)', passionate in the narrative of a crumbling relationship 'That Day'.
On the whole, Becoming a Jackal is an album that refuses to sit still, both musically and emotionally, between tracks. Just listen to the contrast between 'Set the Tigers Free' and 'Twenty-Seven Strangers', a move from the disquiet to the audibly exhausted. Yet the whole affair bears the very clear stylistic stamp of a musician with a game-plan.
If, as its website proclaims, the Mercury Prize is concerned solely with the music of each album, then why shouldn't Villagers stand a fighting chance? Musically beguiling, lyrically enticing, there is simply nothing out there quite like this debut LP. You can keep your Mumford & Sons, your crest of the wave artists. As the toasty album closer 'To Be Counted Among Men' warms your ears in the wake of the heart-breakingly soulful 'Pieces', you realise that the 'just a minute' Conor J O'Brien asked you to spare has turned into three-quarters of an hour. What's more, it's a three-quarters-of-an-hour that you won't want to stop reliving any time soon. At the end of the day, surely no amount of awards and accolades can beat that?