Villagers - {Awayland}

8/10

They’ve already racked up the accolades and silverware with nominations and awards from the likes of Mercury and Ivor Novello, but Villagers weren’t content with just hoarding critical acclaim. Their follow-up to 2010s debut Becoming A Jackal steers away from the gloomy despondence and woebegone tales which award panel judges enjoy, and towards a ray of hope that the everyman can find solace in. {Awayland} doesn’t necessarily tick all the “award” boxes, and those seeking the same despair of before will be (almost) sorely disappointed, but in shedding the sulk, O’Brien and co. release something infinitely more accessible, showcasing their collective talent as master storytellers, shining a light on a new dimension for the Irish folk troubadours.

‘My Lighthouse’ is a gossamer-thin landscape, astutely poised to soundtrack Clover adverts and float your mind away to greener pastures; the fragility is accented by wispy flourishes of radiant harmony, recalling the indie-folk beauty of Bon Iver. It’s a slow opening, but as it matures through its exact three minutes, it nearly builds into something huge. Just as the sounds climax, the curtain falls. Second cut of the record ‘Earthly Pleasures’ stampedes with rattling snares and quasi-funk bass womps, regaling us with a cowboyish chronicle of epic proportions. There’s hints of contemporaries Dry The River in the massive sounding folk-rock, which revels in the exquisite melody as much as the gripping yarn.

It’s a deft LP, sinking its hooks into your ears from the off with both sumptuous guitar tunes and carefully crafted tales of tragedy, romance and nature. Villagers had already made their mark back in 2010 with their talent for brilliant lyrics, and this record again showcases the poignancy and poetry from singer/principal songwriter Conor O’Brien. There have been comparisons in the past to Elbow, Sparklehorse and Bright Eyes, and while some of these elements may still ring true, the group – much more as a group this time – are undoubtedly now honing their own style.

The references to Elbow in particular, though, still hold up against tracks like ‘Passing A Message’, led by sinister bass and gravelly vox. The guitar is syncopated, and Motown brass and jazzy keys inject a throbbing pulse to the mix – more out there for the folky folk – and there’s a Capone-y gangster sleaze in the offbeat swing. It’s wonderfully jarring. ‘Grateful Song’ brings the album completely back to earth with a soft thud. Swooning strings underpin tremolo guitars and Hollywood washes of sonic emotion, juxtaposing against the drizzly, raw words and strained vocals.

Villagers have done it again, only this time with more sheen. Though the debut was pawed at and fawned over, this album may in fact become the fans’ favourite due to the amount of thundering single-worthy belters – and not just belters, but whispers too. There’s a balanced mix of wistful folk, and rockier, more radio-friendly offerings which lure in the casual listener, ensuring an enduring record that warms the cockles in these frosty fledgling weeks of 2013.