Today I took my first steps into the wondrous maze that is music journalism and devised a review for the truly phenomenal Villagers debut Becoming A Jackal, on behalf of pop culture site Culch.ie. With no previous experience other than the ramblings on these bare pages it wasn't the easiest of tasks but with an album of this quality, it was more a case of keeping the superlatives in check as opposed to struggling to find things to say - le review is as follows...
ARISE Sir Conor O’Brien, the prodigal son and the newly anointed saviour of the Irish music scene. This may seem like worthless hyperbole but such is the level of praise that O’Brien’s solo endeavour AKA Villagers has attracted in recent months that such a statement is in fact closer to truth than fiction. When the ashes of O’Brien’s previous band, The Immediate, had settled in 2007 many lamented that we had seen the death of potentially one of the greatest bands to have emerged from these shores in quite some time. The Immediate were indeed a band brimming with talent from every pore; on stage they each swapped instruments with awe inducing ease and before their untimely split they succeeded in producing one of the greatest Irish albums of the decade in the form of In Towers and Clouds. However, as the old proverb goes ‘every end is a new beginning’ and from the ruins of The Immediate O’Brien has dusted himself off, picked up his guitar and while supported by a cast of travelling backing musicians (who often came and went throughout the process, hence the name Villagers) O’Brien has rebounded spectacularly to craft a work of pure and sublime beauty. Word of mouth has built slowly for Villagers, as intimate live dates eventually led to a rousing performance at Oxegen 2009, before appearances at the SXSW festival and Jools Holland brought the hype to another level entirely. Having signed to the prestigious Domino Records and following universal rave reviews from every corner, this album has become one of the most anticipated Irish releases in years, a rare feat especially for a debut. It is with a thankful heart that I can announce that O’Brien has not disappointed, rather he has managed to deliver on the heavy weight of expectations which have been placed on his shoulders and has even surpassed them.
The mournful piano-led opening of I Saw The Dead is the perfect precursor to an album teeming with beautiful sorrow and it flows perfectly into lead single Becoming A Jackal, the buoyant chorus of which has been dominating airwaves in recent weeks. Inspiring and captivating, this is truly a fascinating album and each song feels like a carefully crafted chapter of an engaging book, which grips the listener, and proceeds to pull at one’s heart strings with every soothing note and souring crescendo. Most notably, The Meaning of the Ritual is as inspiring on record as it has been live; a humbling tale fuelled by self deprecation (‘My love is selfish/How it separates the earth/It takes every shining stone but leaves the dirt‘), it embodies a wonderful maturity that is evident across the entire album and leaves the listener breathing cold air on a hot Summer’s day. Home, meanwhile is an intensely beguiling and equally absorbing tale while The Pact (‘I’ll Be Your Fever’) is a charming serenade to an inspiration and it’s upbeat nature provides a nice contrast to an album that is predominantly characterized by a more soothing and reflective nature.
One of the major accomplishments with this album is O’Brien’s ability to combine the grandiose with the unimposing, the epic with the mundane and while Pieces is an incredible piece of work with a stirring finale strong enough to raise the dead, the simplistic meanderings of Twenty Seven Strangers, a tale of an unfortunate bus journey home, is equally enthralling and highlights O’Brien’s possession of that enviable knack among the greatest song writers; the ability to draw beauty from the everyday. Much of the beauty lies with O’Brien’s lyrics which hold a poetic majesty far beyond the traditional confines of the ‘I-miss-my-girl’ style of song writing and this is augmented by a unique emphasis on enunciation and assonance which raises the vocal delivery to outstanding heights. It is almost clichéd to state that this is an album of highlights but for once it is entirely true. With each listen each of the songs become more accomplished, growing and developing until the vocal patterns become etched into one’s synapses, while the often macabre imagery comes to dominate one’s mental landscape until you come to feel you know these songs on an incredibly personal level.
There are some slight criticisms however, one must wonder how room was not found for On A Sunlit Stage, an incredible, spine-tingling track which was a live favourite and would be the centre stage of most albums but was excluded here, while the abrupt ending of The Meaning of the Ritual is unfortunate given the incredible reception it’s fascinating finale has received live. However, these are but minor quibbles, akin to small cracks in the Great Wall of China; noticeable on closer inspection but not grand enough to detract from the wonder and majesty of the overall offering. With The Immediate O’Brien was only one element in a supremely talented quartet and it is easy to understand how his talent may have remained underutilised in such a setting but now, having been ‘released from the shackles’, O’Brien is free to flourish on his own and he has done so with incredible aplomb. This is an incredible album, brimming with joy and sorrow in equal measure and so refreshingly earnest is its delivery and execution that it serves to announce O’Brien’s arrival as one of our most treasured and promising song-writers.