A follow-up marking Villagers out as interesting, literate and imaginative storytellers.
Jude Clarke 2013
When your debut album bags a Mercury Prize nomination, expectations for its follow-up are going to be raised. Villagers’ Becoming a Jackal set of 2010 was an alternately arresting and disturbing release more than worthy of its place on the Mercury list, a showcase for Irish singer-songwriter Conor O’Brien’s sensitive croon and dark way with words.
The mood this time round is tangibly different. Seemingly more of a collective effort (O’Brien lauds the musicianship of his band members in the accompanying notes), the angelic harmonies of opener My Lighthouse, or the gently lulling “ooh”s of the otherwise instrumental title track endow the music with a new lightness.
Strings mimic the ebb and flow of a tide on Grateful Song, reflecting a general loose atmosphere of the sea also created with the album’s lyrical references to “the barrier reef” (The Waves), the singing of sea birds (Nothing Arrived), a “paddle fish” (Passing a Message) and In a Newfound Land You Are Free’s lovely description of how “the windows reveal the spinning sea”.
The macabre does occasionally bare its fangs, but this time round it’s restricted to the odd glancing reference that makes you do an aural double take. The delicate My Lighthouse mentions skinning a corpse (of a ghost); Grateful Song describes a God of “pain… tragedy… hatred and deceit… of a hapless, helpless agony”.
Later, the twist of In a Newfound Land You Are Free – ostensibly a touching ballad to a newborn – seems to suggest that the baby has died: “I am burned by a lifetime too brief / With this newfound land comes a newfound grief.”
The evocative lyrics sometimes suffer from overly mannered or just overdone phraseology – O’Brien’s use of “thee” instead of “you” (The Lighthouse) or “for to” instead of “to” (Grateful Song) jars slightly – and the vocal enunciation is sometimes a little oppressive in its intimacy. But these are ultimately prices worth paying for the pleasingly poetic, adventurous and occasionally florid use of words that mark Villagers out as one of the more interesting, literate and imaginative storytellers of recent years.