Austin’s Okkervil River are, in the most overgeneralized and reductive fashion, under the all-encompassing “indie rock” umbrella. As much as I like to label myself a pop savant of sorts, I often try to downplay my love of, say, Iron & Wine around friends – that sort of thing smacks too often of that most dreaded of music fans, the snob who prefers pretentious music that you just can’t get down with, and as such I avoid it and we just talk about Jay-Z. But there’s a reason why I’ve remained a tenacious and proud advocate of the magic of Okkervil River, and it has less to do with “I totally like cooler music than you do” than it does “please, anyone who loves good music, don’t sleep on this band and miss out on something truly moving, accessible, and awesome.”
Lead Okkervillian Will Sheff remains rock music’s best unheralded songwriter. It’s not enough to be merely literate if you can’t mold that literacy into something that works in meter and rhyme and melody – check out Mike’s list of the top 40 emcees for more on this thought, because this concept extends from rock and roll to hip-hop and beyond – and Sheff’s tomes work when read aloud as poetry or even prose just as well as they lend themselves surprisingly well to rousing singalongs. Indeed, Okkervil’s The Stage Names just might emerge as my favorite album of the early 2000s when I look back on it – it cuts deep, Sheff weaves intricate and pointed stories dissecting the nature of fame, AND is eminently singable. It makes you think, but you can shout gleefully along with it when you’re driving just a little too fast, and you can air-guitar to it.
Which is why, I sigh to say, that the latest offering from this rarest of bands, I Am Very Far, simply doesn’t sucker-punch me the way I’ve come to expect from Okkervil River. The reviews are sterling – and with good reason, as it’s an exceptionally well-crafted album – but I don’t think the universal emotions are there.
Hear me out. This doesn’t make I Am Very Far a bad album. On the contrary: a first listen will yield “The Valley”, one of Okkervil River’s strongest album openers yet, a dank, oppressive-sounding rumination of “the rock and roll dead”, replete with chanted, eerie vocals, a monstrous (almost tribal) bass drum, and some of Sheff’s most evocative lyrical imagery. “We watch the sun switching in the sky, off and on, where our friend stands bleeding on the late summer lawn, a slicked back bloody black gunshot to the head… he has fallen in the valley of the rock and roll dead.” Sheff’s ability to tingle the spine with a turn of phrase remains intact, and this is the most atmospheric his band has sounded since 2005’s Black Sheep Boy. And the flipping of the Sham Wedding/Hoax Funeral EP’s “Murderess” into second track “Piratess” works nicely, capturing an eloquent, soulful tale of betrayal and slow-burning anger. The anger remains subtle, though, in sharp contrast to, say, Black Sheep Boy‘s “Black”, which found Sheff more than willing to tear out his antagonist’s throat with his teeth.
Elsewhere, Okkervil traffic in widescreen, cinemascoped dramatics – swooping strings spice up the driving “White Shadow Waltz” and “We Need A Myth”, and the mournful horns from fan-favorite “A Stone” show up again to lend ambiance to the wrenching “Hanging On A Hit” (as do an expansive, reverb-drenched choir), easily this album’s best song. The male-female interplay suggests Damien Rice if he could be bothered to do anything else but try to make people cry, and the theme echoes, of all things, The Killers’ “Mr. Brightside”, albeit in less-synthy and deeply personal fashion. Even “Rider”, perhaps I Am Very Far‘s least adorned song, suggests Okkervil River by way of the Counting Crows – were Adam Duritz belting this one, it’d certainly soundtrack a pivotal scene in a James L. Brooks movie.
This is a challenging album, no doubt about it. Fans of Okkervil River’s more immediate work – the pulverizing drums, the frantically-scrubbed acoustics, Sheff’s heart-laid-bare, whisper-to-a-scream vocals – will find this one a grower. I find it a grower, and I tout this band’s considerable merits more than most. It’s far from the kidney-punch that the band’s best work is. It’s certainly not the band’s most immediate or urgent album. It’s certainly not their most passionate. But, as I listen to it more, the possibility emerges that I Am Very Far may be their best-crafted record. Sonically, this thing is ambitious – a big, textured soundtrack to a film that hasn’t happened yet. (Danger Mouse just released an album of soundtrack music for an imaginary film, too – I have to assume that DM and Mr. Sheff would spark a remarkable synergy on record. Get on that, please.)
And there’s certainly something to be said for craft. I admire I Am Very Far, and it’s emerging as a strong contender for year-end lists. With that said, theses guys used to reach right into my ribcage, pull my heart out, and squeeze. As a selfish fanboy, I’d love a little more of that next go-round.