Release Date: Sep 9, 2016
Record label: ATO
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock
Okkervil River hit the roll of their lives during the mid to late part of the '00s, with their albums captivating critics and fans alike. They were the unique act who broadened their fanbase while continuing to expand their artistic horizons, no easy task. Then, circa the '10s, the plot shifted. Their albums were still great, but were perhaps a bit arcane for their fans, and with the sheer volume of music available and newer, younger bands and scenes vying for the same audience, their crowds and sales declined, which was a shame, given how good the material was.
Born of great personal loss and the disassembling and reassembling of the band itself, Okkervil River’s Away is a quieter, more sullen turn from Will Sheff and his new recruits. It doesn’t have the dramatic thrust of The Stage Names or the hazy nostalgia of The Silver Gymnasium, but the band’s latest is terrifically contemplative and sonically unique among their expansive catalogue. “Okkervil R.I.P.”, the album’s opener, deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as any of the band’s best songs.
While Okkervil River has always been a ship steered by principal songwriter Will Sheff, their eighth album proper sees Sheff effectively going it alone for the first time. The album was written swiftly after a period of band upheaval, leaving Sheff to direct a crack team of session players through a short session rather than his long-standing companions. The result is an album that feels a long way from the ragged, Replacements-meets-Arcade-Fire alt.rock of The Stage Names or the sleep-deprived folk of Black Sheep Boy.
After a slightly disappointing last couple of albums, in particular the over-egged bombast their most recent release, 2013’s The Silver Gymnasium, the arrival of a new Okkervil River record posed some intriguing questions around whether the Texan band had simply experienced a temporary dip in quality or are already past their peak. The period from 2013 to 2015 had been a challenging time for Okkervil River songwriter and front man Will Sheff, with members of his backing band moving on to family life or to their own projects and Sheff himself spending long hours in a hospice with the grandfather he idolised while he died. A friend offered the use of an empty house in the Catskills where Sheff could go and clear his head and the new songs soon started flowing.
Will Sheff needed to get away. In an essay accompanying the promotion materials for Away he describes the period following the release, tour, and related projects surrounding 2013’s The Silver Gymnasium, his band’s triumphant but underappreciated concept album, as “a strange time for me”, during which most of the band splintered to follow their own life concerns and he spent a significant period nursing his beloved grandfather through the end stages of his life. An opportunity to escape to the Catskills initiated a period of self-healing during which Sheff composed countless songs, sometimes in creative bursts lasting several days amid fitful sleep.
Review Summary: I don't know why it's taken me so long to breathe something new into my lifeThis is a dazzlingly euphoric and utterly stubborn album. It is rock music that resents other music; it’s other music trying to escape rock music. It is something of a testimonial: having lost nearly every sliver of the Okkervil River ensemble, Will Sheff was left with little more than the scraps of his band.
On a warm Austin evening in late June, Okkervil River returned home for the first stop of their current tour, debuting material from their ninth studio LP, Away. The show was a part of a mini-festival sponsored by Lone Star, the pride of cheap Texan beer, and a sizable crowd filled the Stubb’s Amphitheater. Onstage with a different lineup than the last time they were in town, the band played new songs, but also dipped back in their catalog to play a handful of tracks from Black Sheep Boy.
The eighth studio long-player from the Will Sheff-led ensemble, Away serves as both a denouement and a commencement for Okkervil River; a string of old beer tickets and a crisp hundred-dollar bill fished out of a retired jean jacket during a basement purge. Written during a period of personal and professional upheaval that included the death of Sheff's beloved grandfather, Away, despite boasting a talented crew of collaborators, feels more like a solo outing than a fussed-over band project -- Sheff sums it up more elliptically as "It's not really an Okkervil River album and it’s also my favorite Okkervil River album. " Recorded on Long Island with a seasoned posse of N.
Away is the first Okkervil River album without Okkervil River on it. Will Sheff’s backing band has been a revolving door for a while now, yet even as new faces came and went, they’d always conducted themselves as a real band, especially on the road, where their live shows remained as feverish as ever. But after a tumultuous few years marked by loss and even more lineup changes than usual, Sheff was left questioning whether he even wanted to continue the group.
Will Sheff, long the emotional and lyrical center of Okkervil River, finds himself in a lonely place on Away, the eighth album from a band that seems more like a personal project with each passing effort. Sheff's sense of isolation is mostly a symbolic one, copped by the narrator of songs that alternate between evocations of remote melancholy and winsome, sardonic sourness, but also seems sprung from the singer-songwriter's status, after 18 years, as Okkervil River's sole steady member. Faced with an apparent creative and personal crisis, Sheff, or at least the fictional version of himself he's created across a slew of increasingly biographical albums, confronts these problems throughout a nine-track suite of dense, allusive songs.
Okkervil River boast an impressive 14 former members, and a recent exodus of bandmates contributed to the tone of the band’s eighth album, which is dense, dishevelled and darkly comedic. It also, in part, commemorates the death of singer Will Sheff’s idol, his grandfather. A fragmented, frustrated mindset has contributed to a sprawling, inconsistent album with brief flourishes of verdant beauty.
The spectre of death hangs heavy over Away, the eighth full-length from folk-rockers Okkervil River. Written in the wake of the death of lyricist/vocalist Will Sheff's grandfather, Away also marks the band's first record with a wholly revamped lineup, but the sharp thrust into the unknown is handled with a zen-like feeling of relief and appreciation instead of fear. While Okkervil River's meticulous arrangements have always been characterized by a full, lush sound, providing a veritable ecosystem of emotive folk rock, Away trades in the razor-sharp orchestral details of earlier releases for psychedelic swathes of instrumental colour that paints vast, blurry backdrops here.
On 2013's The Silver Gymnasium, Will Sheff waxed nostalgic about his 10-year-old self in New Hampshire. Away now follows up with the fallout of having reckoned that past. Assembling an entirely new set of players for album eight, the New York-dwelling Sheff maintains the band name but questions what it all means. The result is slow-yielding acceptance rather than thrashing against a career and life at 40.
Despite a jam-packed September, I can't help noticing how Carl and I ended up a little bit underwhelmed with many of the albums we reviewed this month. But since both of us got to cover most of our favorites on full-length form, it only makes sense this month's choices are mostly solid, but unspectacular, releases. There is, however, a lot we'd like to recommend.
Will Sheff has always expressed healthy cynicism about the businesses—art and music—he’s in. That has, in the past, worked well as ballast against the strong romantic streak present in Okkervil River’s songs. He may have been singing about tragically exploited porn starlets, delusional velvet-rope rockers or suicidal poets, but the clever, often poignant narratives came packaged with a knowing nod-and-a-wink: Isn’t human behavior absurd? That nuanced take also created essential distance between Sheff’s archetypal subjects and what life in a rock band of middling popularity was really like.