Okkervil River-I Am Very Far
Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff has long had a flair for the dramatic. His songs tend to fall on the epic side of the scale; wordy compositions featuring worried protagonists expressing doubt and uncertainty and struggling to fit into the bustle and congestion of a 21st-Century urban landscape. With a keen eye for detail, Sheff’s characters fumble their way through clumsy romantic adventures, plot revenge against past transgressors, and contemplate the burdens that accompany the fulfillment of one’s chosen career path. In short, despite some catchy sounds, an Okkervil River album is not an exercise in easy, passive listening. Rather it demands attention and repeated listens before one can begin to put the themes together and appreciate the lyrical complexities and fine-crafted musicianship that comprise the entire project. Like a dense novel or an intricately layered film, their albums unfold as they go along; there are no easy answers and no shortcuts to the payoff.
With their new release, I Am Very Far, Okkervil River has made a musical slow-burner. Unlike some of their previous work, there is no immediate song that blasts out and catches the ear. A slow acoustic strum, shakes of percussion, and a sharp snare precede Sheff’s chant-like incantations on opener, “The Valley”. Here, Sheff explores his familiar metaphor of the rock and roll journeyman as martyr. The narrator travels from town to town in the name of entertainment before falling “down in the valley of the rock and roll dead”; a victim of the consumer’s fickleness. Next, “Piratess” slinks along on a solid bass and keyboard groove, buoyed by Sheff’s vocals which reach a register high enough to match the vibe. The band gets back in the listener’s face with “Rider” a burst of classic Okkervil River rock energy reminiscent of some of the standout tracks from 2007’s The Stage Names and its’ companion piece, 2008’s The Stand Ins. Then the album takes a different turn as some of the familiar sounds are swept away and a deep moodiness sets in and takes hold. Weary contemplation shrouds Sheff’s vocals in “Lay of the Last Survivor”, a track boosted by doses of lushly textured instrumentation. “White Shadow Waltz” builds upward with bursts of anticipation, reflecting the work of The New Pornographers, a band Sheff lent a hand to last year.
The remainder of the album remains hard to pin down and proves to be distinctly unique in the band’s oeuvre. The songs are still centered around Sheff’s acoustic folk-tunings, here though, the studio instrumentations and sonic soundscapes take them to new and unseen territories. “We Need a Myth” alternates in a fast/slow style change that keeps the song from wallowing in one mood, while echo and reverb blend together and add to the spookiness of “Show Yourself”. “Hanging From a Hit” sort of sounds like an old Sun Records tune as run through by The Walkmen, and “Your Past Life as a Blast” is Sheff at his wordsmith best; a barrage of nonsensical lyrics that when cobbled together become infectious and consequential. Furthermore, as the track shimmers along, the David Byrne/Talking Heads nods become evident, which always serves as a welcome inclusion. I Am Very Far ends with a bang, the shouty call to arms of “Wake And Be Fine”, and then the six-minute meditation “The Rise”, where the band throws all its tricks at the wall in a cacophonous maze of noise and sound effects. It is a fitting end to an experimental and audacious move by Okkervil River. As good as The Stage Names and The Stand-Ins are it would have been easy to follow that template again. Instead, Will Sheff and Co. have challenged themselves and discovered a new range of musical ideas that further their development and growth. Already a well-received and highly praised band, this new album should continue to warrant the positive attention already bestowed.