Whelan’s, Dublin ****
With an acclaimed debut album under his belt – Becoming a Jackal was nominated for both a Mercury and Choice music prize – it would be the easiest thing in the world for Conor J O’Brien to knock off a few more tunes on his acoustic guitar, jump up on a big stage and deliver them as a done deal to his compliant fans.
But that’s not the way O’Brien rolls – he has an unspoken pact with his audience, that he’ll never pull the wool over their eyes, so he’s gone back to first principles, playing an intimate gig in Whelan’s, where he let his new songs loose. Basically, he’s ready to earn our devotion once again, and prove he’s still deserving of it.
Villagers’s second album, Awayland, is due out in January, and O’Brien has already given us glimpses of it via the superb Passing a Message and the electronic-edged The Waves. Having come off a two-year tour to promote Becoming a Jackal, O’Brien found it hard to pick up the acoustic guitar and write, so instead he tinkered with electronic sounds and textures, until the songs started to evolve. While Becoming a Jackal was almost a solo album in all but name, Awayland is more of a band effort, and benefits from the dynamic between five musicians who plainly enjoy exploring new soundscapes. Lyrically, O’Brien is still light-years ahead of the pack, coming up with lines that stop you in your tracks, and unravelling the intricacies of emotion and existence with the skill of a master weaver.
First, the band loosen up with Set the Tigers Free, Home and The Pact, and O’Brien asks politely if it’s okay to play a few new songs. The answer is a resounding “yes”. Grateful Song, thankfully, is well up to scratch, with its Eno-esque keyboard swells and open-armed outlook, while The Bell is dark and laden with symbolism, with sudden bursts of rhythm and cathedral-choir harmonies. In contrast, My Lighthouse focuses on a simple spark of an idea and sets its course towards the light. Rhythm Composer’s skittering cadence provides a light moment of self-affirmation.
If there are any lingering doubts that Awayland is a worthy successor to their fine debut, Memoir, Earthly Pleasures, Judgment Call and Nothing Arrived effortlessly dispel them all. Having won us over all over again, O’Brien encores with a solo reading of That Day, and ends with old favourite On A Sunlit Stage.