As a rule, I try to avoid making comparisons when reviewing bands. It's all too easy to slip into "they're like x crossed with y" mode, and while it may often be the most direct way of illustrating a band's sound (lord knows there's tonnes of bands out there that do sound exactly half-way between two other acts...) it's not an approach that appeals to my sensibilities as a blogger. I like to think I'm often one to avoid the line-of-best-fit at all costs, and I'll be the first to admit I'm often deliberately contrary at the expense of rationality and legibility... But in this instance I feel a comparison is unavoidable. So I must being by apologising to the act in question for stooping to the obvious comparison right at the start of the review, but there's just no way I can talk about Becoming a Jackal, the Mercury-nominated debut from Villagers, without mentioning Bright Eyes' I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning.
On first listen I didn't think much of Becoming a Jackal at all; I dutifully gave it a couple of spins when it was nominated for the 2010 Mercury, but there wasn't anything on it that jumped out and grabbed me. Now usually at this stage in a review I reveal that some chance encounter re-introduced me to the record and, seeing it in a new light, I gave it a second chance and actually quite liked it. In the spirit of mixing things up, that's not at all the story in this instance. My re-acquaintance with Villagers was a calculated move, and even now I'm not one-hundred-percent sure if I do like this record or not yet. And this is where the Bright Eyes comparisons come to the fore. Bright Eyes are one of my all time favourite acts, and it was Wide Awake... that acted as my gateway drug into the muddy and mystifying world of the Bright Eyes back-catalogue.
Beyond the obvious parallels - both acts are the work of one central man, both of whom are called Conor - I can't help but be reminded of Wide Awake... whenever I approach Becoming a Jackal. It's not so much the aesthetic but the approach that does this; Irish Conor (linchpin of Villagers) actually has quite an assured, competent voice, and there's not sign of the Alt. Country vibe that defined the sound of Wide Awake..., but there are touches in the production that hint at the same kind of mind at work.
This album feels like it was put together with the same spirit of mischievous auteurism that made Bright Eyes' work so appealing. So after noticing these parallels I am now endeavouring to get to know this record much better. So far, repeated listenings keep throwing up new facets and opening new doors of comprehension. The songs on display here smack of pop perfection - considering this is a debut LP, the strength and maturity of the songwriting is astounding, and the production walks the fine line between professional smoothness and the raw DIY aesthetic; a feat not often managed with such assurance as Villagers manage to pull off.
All in all, a resounding success, then? Well, no. Despite becoming increasingly enamoured with the techniques and abilities on display, I still don't actually like Becoming a Jackal. I admire it, and I think that on balance it is undeniably a good record, but it just doesn't quite connect with me. Maybe I'm waiting for the next Villagers LP, or possibly just the right set of circumstances to actually fall in love with this record, but for the moment I'll keep on playing it, but it's not quite there yet.
or maybe "is"; I'm never sure about the grammar to use when discussing acts that have proper band names and plenty of members but are still in essence the work of one singer-songwriter. ↩︎