Long-time readers will know that Okkervil River have, in this blogger’s opinion, been enjoying something of a purple patch. Not only have their live shows had the energy and abandon of the revivalist’s tent, and their recent records the vigour and invention many of their contemporaries have forsaken; their work with other artists, such as Roky Erickson, has given those artists a whole new lustre of their own.
Their new record, I Am Very Far, has so far not captured me in quite that way. It is certainly more dark and brooding, deliberately more forbidding, than The Stand Ins – in many ways it recalls the sinister Black Sheep Boy. But that record had real quirks and a sinuous lightness. I Am Very Far – from its chuggy, chopping opener, ‘The Valley’, which has a powerful if over-used rhythmic hook – feels like it’s straining for something more ‘substantial’. The danger with that, of course, is that you wind up with ‘stodgy’.
Take ‘Lay of the Last Survivor’, which sounds like Rilo Kiley’s ‘Accidental Death’ without Jenny Lewis’s transformative vocals; take ‘Your Past Like Is A Blast’, Devendra Banhart without the art-house accoutrements. There are poor man’s Sufjan Stevens and Of Montreal songs, too (‘The Rise’ and ‘Piratess’ respectively). Only Will Sheff’s consistently powerful personality stamps some of these songs as identifiably the work of Okkervil River.
So what’s going on here? Certainly I Am Very Far is diverse – if its touchstones are at times a tad obvious (many reviewers have mentioned Arcade Fire) then at the very least its sonic heterodoxy offers Sheff’s lyrics the benefits of new contexts. By and large, those lyrics remain of a solid quality – though no longer quite so knowingly literate, they’re here nevertheless impressionstic and arresting in their images (Sheff sings of “a slicked back bloody black gunshot to the head” as early as the opening verse).
Still, the effect is one of earnestness rather than of abandon. Sheff’s songwriting is of course more than strong enough to support the complex arrangements he concocts from the producer’s chair he also occupies on this record, standing solid even as string sections swirl and double-tracked drums boom, but the album ultimately seems to lack a focus: there are so many shifts in tone and tenor, so many differently dreamy landscapes to explore, that the over-riding impression of all these pulsing crescendos is weariness. Quiet moments like ‘Hanging From A Hit’, with a tender vocal and lazy bass, are welcome in their rarity.
Unlike The Stand Ins or Black Sheep Boy, I Am Very Far isn’t a concept album; perhaps it will require time to separate each of these songs from each other and enjoy them for themselves. In the meantime, however, I Am Very Far is a great effort of an album – in every sense.