After leaving us in the dark since 2013’s The Silver Gymnasium, mystery surrounded Texas folk rockers Okkervil River. Apart from some digital singles in 2014, we didn’t know what was going on, but now frontman Will Sheff is clearing things up. Away is somewhere between a true Okkervil River album and a solo effort, but it’s definitely the continuation of something old and the start of something new. And high time at that!
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It’s curious to me that Okkervil River have released two of indie rock’s best records of the last ten years and no one cares. I Am Very Far was a surrealist rock symphony in which Will Sheff threw filing cabinets across the studio in an attempt to make sense of his own knotted lyrical improvisations; its follow-up, The Silver Gymnasium, stands as one of rock music’s most touching personal documents, a study into the nostalgia of childhood frankly assessing our first contacts with love, depression, suicide, empathy, disillusionment and any other thing that we, as humans, have no choice in dealing with. Oh, but he sounds like Rod Stewart, I hear Clint retort -- just listen to the songs, please. They have never been better.
‘Away’ follows up my absolute favourite Okkervil record in The Silver Gymnasium, but it feels entirely removed from it: after seeking contributions from his longtime ensemble band to help arrange that record of personal documentary, his entire crew bar the drummer quit, effectively destroying Okkervil River as a cast of characters. At the same time, Sheff’s grandfather died, leading both his personal and creative lives down a total impasse. It’s very Sheff to want to make something new out of the abyss, so he kept the Okkervil name alive and tried to make something entirely different from its ashes. It’s acknowledged on the winkingly sad “Okkervil River R.I.P.”, with one of Sheff’s trademark sneaking melodies that plays through the whole song under different instrumental hues. It’s a song that both grieves for the past and gets over it simultaneously: “You’ve got a bad day coming / a sad day coming” into growls of “I didn’t open up my mouth just to piss and moan!”.
The lyrical strands of this record shift between that bitterness and adoration for all things in all corners, be it the rock industry in old-school Okkervil meta rock (“I thought that it was us against the world / now it’s now it’s me against something so big and abstract that I can’t tell what it is”), the verse-billowing “Frontman In Heaven” or the lovers, family and general existentialism elsewhere. The music responds, Sheff crafting his most knowingly diverse songs in a want for fluid arrangements and classical interludes. “Call Yourself Renee” opens on serene stringwork where Sheff would’ve before merely pronounced the song with a groan, while the clock-ticking production of “Judey On A Street” eventually goes beyond its guitar riffing to be enraptured in gorgeous, brassy euphoria that makes Sheff sound like he’s been reincarnated as a cloud.
Some of the classic rockisms of the band’s past are intact, yes, but this record is too peculiar for Okkervil: it’s lush and tasteful, but also wide-eyed and naive. It curves its themes into mysterious language close to Sheff’s heart, his usual mix of sageness and fury coming across as if they’re part of each other. At its wordiest, it feels like it’s delivering conversations about Sheff’s recent personal experience -- in choice moments, he lets us in with a winningly simple lyric, like “help me to the other side!”. It’s a strange thing that he’s been making music purely for himself for his last three records, and they’ve amounted to his best ever work.
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