Domino, 2010

There are a lot of paradoxes to these guys, Villagers. The scope of their sound is massive yet profoundly intimate. They’re emotive and wear proverbial heart sleeves, yet Becoming a Jackal, the debut full-length album for the group, is jam-packed with songs that end in almost-laughingly abrupt ways.

The driving force behind the group himself, Conor O’Brien, goes from a tender whisper to literally howling in mere seconds. Somehow, these are all comfortable contradictions, nothing feels out of place. The way O’Brien finds bits of sadness in tapestries of every day life, the way a child finds Waldo in a picture book, is kind of reassuring. “My love is selfish/And I bet that yours is too”, isn’t standard songwriting fodder, which makes it so much more compelling.

This music, this unsettling dark lyrical honesty, these are nothing new to the craft. In fact there are many familiar moments here throughout the record.  The swirling arpeggios and melancholy strings on the opening track, “I Saw The Dead” recall Neil Hannon’s Regeneration-era despondent tunes; there are plenty of vocally-grittier, folksy moments that echo Conor Oberst’s songwriting and vocal style (“Ship of Promises”, “Twenty-Seven Strangers”); and even hauntingly-sweet music that, should the listener just be passing and overhear, could easily be mistaken for that of Arcade Fire (“Pieces”).

These aren’t parodies or plagiarisms though, they seem to be the natural output of an artist in-and-out of love, struggling with growing up and finding himself, and making peace with who that person is once he finds out.  In other words, damn fine songwriting, the sort of elements that should go without saying.

It’s a record that will have no problem hooking listeners for several rotations because it rewards a little differently each time, covering a lifetime of feelings in just under forty-five minutes. O’Brien isn’t new to the scene, but his band is, yet it feels anything like a debut. A masterpiece fresh out of its plastic wrap, and already towering over O’Brien’s previous canon of work, it will be hard to find anything this introspectively enchanting all year.