I’ve said it before, but it’s been a while, so I’ll say it again… I love listening instructions. Having someone tell you what music to try is great, but even better is being told the how, where and when, as well. That’s just what Villagers frontman Conor O’Brien has done with his latest album, {Awayland}. On the Villagers website, he lists the following instructions…

Maybe try it on headphones first, without interruption. I hope you enjoy.

Truth be told, by the time I saw his note, I was already 3/4 of the way through the album, and I was indeed listening through headphones. This barely qualifies as coincidental, given that new music is almost always debuted this way, for me and, I’d guess, for a lot of other people. But the second part — the “without interruption” corollary — that’s a bit more interesting, because I’d had the very same thought mere moments after I clicked play on NPR’s First Listen of the album. Almost immediately, I felt the need to hunker down for the full-album experience, despite being 30 or so minutes away from reading O’Brien’s instructions. Now that’s a coincidence worth digging our teeth into.

So why’d that happen? Why did I instinctively know that {Awayland} would be a great cover-to-cover read?

[cue Carrie Bradshaw voiceover]

Why would one album be better suited for uninterrupted listening than another?

Let’s knock out a few of the possible reasons:

  • Structure — Certain types of music — classical comes directly to mind — employ forms that are intended to be heard a certain way. Suites. Sonatas. Concertos. Anything with movements. Sure, you can listen to the section you dig most, but you’ll be missing out on important context that would likely enhance the experience. (Does that stop me from listening to the “Fanfare for the Common Man” movement of Copland’s third symphony when I want to pretend I’m a scientist who’s about to make a groundbreaking discovery? No. No, it does not.)
  • Narrative — If an artist you care about releases a concept album, rock opera or anything else that has a single narrative stream running through it, you might as well do them the courtesy of hearing the story in sequence at least once. THEN you can put “The Rake’s Song” into a playlist and ignore the rest. (Just kidding — I really like Hazards of Love and regret not seeing The Decemberists on that tour. The performance videos I’ve seen of “The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid” are awesome.)
  • Cohesion — Just last week I recommended that a friend listen to Phosphorescent’s new offering all the way through, and if I had to put a finger on why, I’d guess it was because Muchacho has a certain uniformity — of theme, sound and quality — that makes cherry-picking seem more damaging than usual, like taking a beautifully contoured glass object in your hands and dropping it on purpose. That’s not to say that Matthew Houck’s composition is fragile or inflexible, just that when taken as a whole, it becomes something even more beautiful.

These are solid possibilities, but O’Brien’s album isn’t beholden to a form, it’s not a rock opera, and it’s way too varied to warrant the kid-gloves treatment… so what’s going on here?

I think {Awayland} warrants a fourth bullet that’s not as easy to sum up in a one-word, bolded header.

You know how certain people can walk to the front of the room and command pin-drop silence, no matter how antsy the people sitting before them might be? That’s how I felt during the first few moments of the album’s first track, despite never having heard a note of O’Brien’s music before. It’s truly remarkable. Usually pin-drop command comes from having already demonstrated something — the manager who you’ve seen fire workers on the spot, the school bus driver who you know will shame you without thinking twice if you don’t sit your ass down — but the opening sequence of “My Lighthouse” was all I had to go on, and I was arrested. A little acoustic guitar… some harmonized humming… lead vocals that seem like they’re so close that turning your head one way or the other might cause O’Brien’s mouth to actually make contact with your ear… together these elements spoke to me, and they said “Don’t you dare look away.” So I didn’t. And the next 43 minutes were absolute magic.

Call it control, if you like. Gravitas. Straight-up power. Whatever it is, {Awayland} has it in droves, and submitting to it is well worth your while.

I’ve posted a pair of tracks from the album below, one of which is a neat remix, but I highly recommend stopping by the NPR First Listen to hear the whole thing, which will be released in the U.S. on April 9.

Villagers — “Nothing Arrived” [Spotify]

Villagers — “The Waves” (Jape remix) [Soundcloud]

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