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Getting To Know: Villagers

By Gregg LaGambina; photo by Rich Gilligan on April 5, 2013


Getting To Know: Villagers



It can take just one album and already they’ve got you in a box. Conor J. O’Brien has his box and into it we’ll place him along with the other singer-songwriters who pluck strings of guitars along with hearts. And so it goes…

Conor J. O’Brien: singer of the confessional variety, literate, Irish, boyish and charming. First album—Becoming a Jackal (2010)—lauded and celebrated in the proper circles. Those who drink black coffee, dark beer, brown liquors, wear brown shoes and cultivate brown beards—they all nod and know the secret that this so-called “Villagers” is only a moniker, this Conor J. O’Brien its mastermind. The songs are good and strong and sturdy enough to put this box up on that top shelf near Bright Eyes, down the way a bit from Elvis Costello. And if he properly ages like the aforementioned brown whiskey, we’ll shift him an inch closer to his hero (Costello) and farther down the line to who-knows-where, his potential being vast.



All is fine and good until Mr. O’Brien comes along and complicates things with {Awayland}, a second album three years in the making, not quite so singer-songwriter, not exactly brown like shoes or moustaches or bourbon. This one is Technicolor and electric; it has blips and the sounds of computers, which we’ve already condemned as antithetical to what we’ve already determined Villagers to be: earthy, organic, of-the-soul…not the hard drive. 

“I don’t think it’s a valid reason not to like a piece of music because it’s not being played on a piece of wood,” says O’Brien. “It’s all just noise once it’s on record. For me, it was always about exploring the farthest reaches of my imagination. There’s no point in making an album unless you’re growing and changing and learning. If it’s going to alienate narrow-minded people, that’s sad. But maybe it will open people’s minds as well.”

When first single “The Waves” was released (as singles are these days: directly to YouTube), the shuddering bit-board synthetic music and accompanying low-budget sci-fi future-travel clip alarmed the Villagers base and sent the comments section below the short film into a mannered frenzy of befuddled folkies.

“It took me months and months to craft these sounds,” says O’Brien, addressing the notion that he’s become some push-button automaton, drained of sentiment. “It’s a hell of a lot of work to make soundscapes which react emotionally and give the song more depth. For me, the lyrics are quite emotional. They mean quite a lot to me. But I wanted there to be this kind of inhuman spine behind them because it represents that almost complete uncaring nature of…nature, I guess. Like the tidal waves of the song, and the universe, and how we’re absolutely helpless when it’s at its most fierce. And that is what the song is kind of about. I wanted the music to represent that. I worked very hard to get that. So, it definitely wasn’t just bleep-bleep-program-bleep.”

In O’Brien’s assessment, it’s his former album (not {Awayland}) that might be the imposter in terms of representing the burdens in this world that beset the human animal, the ultimate, of course, being death itself. Soon after his debut, he lost his older sister and began to feel his youthful existentialism was perhaps a posture, maybe unearned, at worst a pose.

“I no longer romanticize sadness,” he says. “And I had perhaps done that on the first album. I wanted this album to focus on absolute innocence and birth, coming from an absolute naive 
perspective. It’s from looking around and realizing this is what actually brings us all together. It’s this absolute void and feeling of meaninglessness that you sometimes get. That’s what brings us together. We are all in this shit pile together,” he laughs. “It’s a secular–spiritual, half-humanist vibe I was going for, I guess. Kurt Vonnegut was really helping me. I was reading him a lot at the time.”

So, if you’re on the fence, expecting some machine-made behemoth of synthetic noise crashing through the sound-hole of the Irish troubadour’s weather-beaten acoustic, you’re not entirely wrong. But you’d be wrong to resist, to cross your arms and judge, to turn away, because the color and the noise might clash with your preconceptions. You’d miss the fruits of O’Brien’s narrative gifts, the continuing maturation of one of our better songwriters. You’d miss  {Awayland}, a kind of concept album that never lets the concept overwhelm the small, human moments of a whispering track, such as “In a Newfound Land You Are Free.” You’ll be led carefully into his new experiment by the brief, opening three-part harmonies of “My Lighthouse.” You’ll feel the uplift of what might be the first true anthem for Carl Sagan humanists everywhere in “Nothing Arrived.” No matter what your inclination might be toward a “blip” heard here and there, you’ll never doubt for a moment that  {Awayland} was made by a man fully aware of you, us, how it all fits, how he fits and if any of it matters.  

“I had an imaginary audience of one in mind,” he says. “My imaginary audience was a person who was going through an incredibly tough time and I just wanted to sing a song for that person. You do have a will, but you’ve got to realize you’re in the middle of a giant machine as well. Try to make the most of it. I’ve just reduced it all to a horrible platitude,”  he admits, laughing. “It is hard to talk about. The songs talk for themselves way better than I could.”  F


3 albums that inspired Villagers’ Conor J. O’Brien to make music


OK Computer
I learned every guitar part from that album. I was 14 when it came out. I spent the whole summer learning all of it. I’ll never forget it.




Elvis Costello and The Attractions
Blood & Chocolate
It’s mind-blowingly good. Everything about it is perfect. The songs are so well constructed. The production is so raw. The viciousness in his voice; the broken characters, the lyrics. It’s one of my favorite albums ever.



Bob Dylan
Blood on the Tracks
It’s got these beautiful chord sequences and a sensitivity to the music that I didn’t really find on his other albums. “Simple Twist of Fate” is one of the best songs ever written.

This article is from FILTER Issue 51