One can’t help but infer some deeper level of meaning from the title of Okkervil River’s sixth full-length album, I Am Very Far. Indeed, the band – which now counts vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Will Sheff as its sole surviving original member – is a far cry from its rural New Hampshire roots of the mid 1990’s. Particularly in terms of a physical framework, the group doesn’t really resemble that of its inaugural self, when Sheff, drummer Seth Warren, bassist Zach Thomas, and Shearwater compatriot Jonathan Meiburg were touting their debut EP (Stars Too Small to Use) and dazzling audiences for the first time at the 2000 South by Southwest showcase in Austin, Texas.
From a thematic perspective too, Okkervil River seems to prefer keeping things at a distance. I Am Very Far gives nod to the insular themes that have pervaded Sheff’s work in Okkervil River since 2005’s Black Sheep Boy first garnered critical acclaim. That album’s threads of loneliness, isolation, and desperation – coupled with Sheff’s fiery whisper-to-wail vocals – cemented an outsider trend that would continue on The Stage Names and The Stand Ins, where pseudonyms and a benchwarmer status became the norm – a way for the derelict to experience how the other half lives while continually retreating farther away from it.
While Okkervil River’s earnest yet anguished indie rock remains relatively unchanged in a lyrical sense, I Am Very Far finds a band that is readily intent on jettisoning its lo-fi status in favor of a sound more audacious and leviathan. Whereas the Okkervil of yore might’ve even been occasionally tagged with a folk handle thanks to the presence and prominence of acoustic guitars, this latest offering has a greater cinematic ambience, with Sheff summoning more than a dozen musicians – including a choir and a string section – to realize his dystopian visions. The record is also the first in the Okkervil River discography to be notably devoid of any narrative arc; the melancholy hues and brooding moods are pervasive, but they lack a central figure to toil under their burden.
Setting a brash tone for the proceedings is “The Valley,” a progressively jittery number in which the band stockpiles things with a bevy of artillery percussion, eerie string melodies, droning keyboard harmonies, and Sheff’s undeniable penchant for vivid lyrical imagery: “A slicked-back bloody black gunshot to the head / he has fallen in the valley of the rock and roll dead.” The abrasive clamor of the song’s outro is far removed from the understated guitar strokes of its opening statement. In stark contrast sits “Piratess,” a lush yet unsettling track of keyboard gloom whose mildly danceable groove momentarily evokes “Billie Jean.” The song is also notably slicker in texture than its predecessor.
Will Sheff is frequently lauded for his ace capabilities with words, but he’s due credit too for the attention paid to proper sequencing; in an era where the album’s format often seems irrelevant, it’s truly a marvel to find an artist who makes waves of tension and release so gratifying. From the jaunty Springsteen jangle of “The Rider” and the midtempo country rock of “The Lay of the Last Survivor” to the pulsating electronic chug of “White Shadow Waltz” and the orchestral splendor of “We Need a Myth,” Sheff bring a surprising amount of effervescence to his songs, no matter how dour the subject matter. Just one distinguished track in a long lineage of them, “Myth” is a gorgeously expansive amalgam of agitated strings and elegiac piano arpeggios that gives way to sublime vocal harmonies and the type of unrelenting drumbeat destined for a setlist’s encore.
The album’s final third doesn’t disappoint either – in fact, it’s where the newly applied orchestrations really make a splash. “Hanging From a Hit” is an impassioned slowburner, where tremolo-affected guitar chords eventually take a backseat to a vocal choir and clarion trumpet tones. True to form, Sheff bolsters the cut with eloquent wordplay: “What’s making all my tears / is taking all my fears away / but I don’t need to cry / cause now I’m clear.” On closer track “The Rise,” the band melds gently pulsating cluster chords (à la Steve Reich), hyperactive percussion, string section chromaticism, and woodwind solo lines to create something oddly soothing despite so many disparate textures and timbres coalescing at once.
No one has ever doubted that Will Sheff is an exceptionally adroit songwriter – perhaps one of this generation’s finest. Yet with such a superb back catalog and a stellar new record to boot, the question now becomes how – or if – Okkervil River will be able to top itself the next time around.