In some ways, despite his young age and surprise victory at the Ivor Novello awards, Conor O’Brien has been a little unlucky. A musician in debt to Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath as much as to the wave of Irish troubadours like Damien Rice and Fionn Regan who broke through around the turn of the last millennium, his debut ‘Becoming a Jackal’ was a startlingly assured blending of folk, electronic textures reminiscent of Radiohead and Dylan-esque lyricism yet it never broke through in the way the more accessible Mumford and Sons or Ben Howard did a year or two later.
‘Awayland’ probably still won’t sell as many copies as the other acts lumped together under the ‘new-folk’ banner but the second album from the Irish wonderkid and his bandmates represents a steady development from the sound of their Mercury nominated debut. Astutely produced and mixed in Ireland by Conor and his bandmate Tommy McLaughlin, tracks like ‘Earthly Pleasure’ do a good job at positioning O’Brien as the heir to Van Morrison’s Celtic folk-jazz mysticism, whilst at the same time travelling further down some of the more obscure pathways hinted at on his debut.
On ‘Awayland’s lead single ‘The Waves’ it’s hard not to see links to Woolf’s novel of the same name, famous for its experiments with a series of narrators as trapped by the goings on in their own heads as they are by any physical constraints, in lines like ‘you’d better get back inside your cave / we’re all dancing with the waves’. Especially in the tracks like ‘Rhythm Composer’ which reflect on the nature of the creative process, he’s a top-class versifier with ear for both escapist lyricism and neat observations. He can also write a catchy tune as demonstrated by the catchy, harmony-flecked folk-rock of ‘Nothing Arrived’ whose ‘I waited for something but something died’ refrain manages to be both deep, graceful and surprisingly catchy.
Villagers approach to instrumentation is interesting and eclectic, bringing to mind a Northern Irish Sufjan Stevens with carefully deployed banjo and tenor sax, though there are odd moments in which some of the more experimental arrangements don’t always mesh well together. The climax of the aforementioned single ‘The Waves’ attempts a techno-inspired wig-out that sits a little unsurely alongside the song’s wordy pronouncements, whilst the circling synth riff beneath the pre-chorus of ‘Judgment Call’ actually distracts from O’Brien’s clever subversion of business speak into pop-song.
The odd flaws and the laughably portentous intro to ‘Grateful Song’ aside, ‘Awayland’ is a bucolic, escapist pleasure that re-affirms O’Brien’s position as one of the most gifted young songwriters around.