Release Date: May 10, 2011
Record label: Jagjaguwar
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock
The sixth album from Okkervil River opens wide on "the valley of the rock and roll dead," frontman Will Sheff baying in anguish over a booming backbeat. The band's past records may have favored a hyper-literate, near-narrative approach, but Far is a dense and hallucinatory album that seems to take place in what T.S. Eliot once called "death's dream kingdom," a kind of phantasmagoric frontier where sensation trumps storytelling.
I Am Very Far continues Will Sheff and co.'s remarkable run of albums, one that finds them at peak form and threatens to put them in a class all their own. Over their last few records, Okkervil River have become tighter and tighter, their pop gems polished to a diamond sheen. I Am Very Far, however, returns to the shaggier freedom of 2005's Black Sheep Boy, and then takes it even further.
Don’t be fooled by I Am Very Far‘s ambitious arrangements or crowded stable of guest musicians; Okkervil River’s sixth album is an excellent, reductionist work, the sound of a band attempting to locate the visceral core of their craft by submerging every other element in noise. Or as frontman Will Sheff explains in the album’s accompanying press release, “The goal was to push my brain to places it didn’t want to go…to keep myself confused about what I was doing. ” While previous Okkervil River albums volunteered their intentions early on through tidily defined concepts and detailed narratives, I Am Very Far constantly dodges interpretation.
Ah, indie rock! Sure, you read more books than rock‘n’roll, get invited to more parties than the blues, take better drugs than pop. But tell me, do: why wear all that self pity on your sleeve, indie rock? If only you were to harvest more records like I Am Very Far, indie rock, you and I would surely still be cresting those giddy, teenage waves of yore! I Am Very Far, wherein Will Sheff calls upon the gods of fiction, poetry and theatre to deliver a dual sonic and lyrical masterstroke, poised to elegantly blow your doors from their hinges, indie rock! Wherein Austin’s Okkervil River suavely obliterate trends towards navel gazing cynicism and meretricious, self pitying one-upmanship - for shame, indie rock! Wherein percussion and orchestration glide majestically, above and beyond mere backdrop, evoking in themselves a wonderful lyricism, indie rock! Think this sounds pretentious? It is! It’s brilliant! And lord, the theatrics! Ramped up to proportions so shamelessly Big, so superlatively humungous, as to render cries of ’Arcade Fire-esque!’ and ’reminiscent of early Springsteen!’ quite, monstrously inadequate. Esteemed syntactic gymnast Will Sheff inches further into the spotlight with every release; even last LP The Stand Ins - a plateful of The Stage Names’ leftovers - provided an unlikely rallying cry in ‘Lost Coastlines’.
The reinvention of an indie rock band Give Will Sheff credit. Handed a big budget for his latest album, the frontman for Austin indie rockers Okkervil River may have single-handedly propped up the Texas economy. On several songs, he’s deployed a 13-piece musical army consisting of two drummers, two pianists, two bassists, and seven guitarists, all playing live at the same time.
Okkervil River followed up its critically acclaimed 2007 album The Stage Names with a companion album, The Stand Ins, which fit snugly both in sound and theme. By the second track of I Am Very Far, it’s abundantly clear that the Austin band has done things differently on its latest album. The haunting beats of “Piratess” don’t indicate where the album heads next so much as serve notice that more careful listening will be rewarded.
Somewhere along the way, Will Sheff became indie rock’s de facto poet laureate, working from a densely literate perspective that weaved American folklore, morality tales and rock 'n’ roll mythbusting, turning Okkervil River into one of the most prolific and serious bands of the current generation. He did it while slowly backing away from himself, too. While some earlier Okkervil recordings took confessional, heart-on-sleeve approaches to the typical singer-songwriter tropes of unrequited love and betrayal, the most recent records--companion releases The Stage Names and The Stand-Ins--projected Sheff’s perspective onto a cast of characters, picking up on the idea that “a good writer can simulate a page torn out of somebody’s diary, but actually tell you a broader story,” as he told the AV Club in 2007.
Fresh from backing the legendary Roky Erickson on 2010’s triumphant True Love Cast Out All Evil, Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff decided to head home to his native New Hampshire to carve out the meat of the group’s sixth long-player. The resulting I Am Very Far, which was produced by Sheff, feels both transitory and triumphant, successfully integrating the Austin, Texas-based collective’s penchant for lovelorn, indie Americana with the wild abandon of 21st century pop music’s increasingly blurry genre borders. Elements of Wilco, the Flaming Lips, Springsteen, Talking Heads, Arcade Fire, and even the Fixx burn through I Am Very Far, down lightning rods affixed to the myriad studios procured by Sheff and crew throughout the record’s intentionally sporadic recording schedule.
Review Summary: For Robin Smith:Anyone who is in the liberal arts at university, or at least has partaken in a course or two, is fully of aware of the type of person Will Sheff is. He doesn’t act like he doesn’t care; we know he does. Not in the keener, annoyingly faux way of caring, either--the way that grates on you as said annoying keener raises their hand to answer every damn question the professor asks (usually getting it wrong in their condescending air of pretension).
There’s something missing from the title I Am Very Far. Maybe it’s a “from”, as if Will Sheff and company have a destination in mind. Or maybe it’s an “away”, as if they’ve left something behind. To hear Sheff talk recently you’d think it’d be the second option, since he tried to “push [his] brain to places it didn’t want to go” while writing and recording this record.
Some albums take time, slowly revealing their meanings and aims only after repeated listening. Others seem to announce their intentions the moment you put them on, as does the sixth album by Texan quintet Okkervil River. It opens with a slightly archaic but nevertheless familiar sound: even 20 years after it fell from fashion, nothing says "we are aiming for the stadiums" quite like the booming thwack of a gated snare drum, the 80s sonic signpost of big rock music with big ambitions.
I Am Very Far is ostensibly Okkervil River's first non-concept album in eight years. After Down the River of Golden Dreams in 2003, the Austin-based group released two sets of linked records: Black Sheep Boy and Black Sheep Boy Appendix both re-imagined Tim Hardin's title song as a phantasmagorical rock'n'roll cautionary tale, full of goat-headed men and hearts literally made of stone. The Stage Names and The Stand Ins played like two installments of a dark tour diary, deconstructing old rock myths and scrawling out new ones.
Coming back from the longest break in their young, breathless career, Okkervil River display a newfound confidence on I Am Very Far. Evident from the murderous first strums of “The Valley,” these typically bookish Austinites are aiming to impress, to make it known that they’ve jettisoned the bathetic acoustic balladry that dominated 2008’s The Stand Ins. “The Valley” rolls like thunder across a flatland road, loud and threatening, but once the novelty of Will Sheff’s tough-guy posturing fades, one is left wondering whether this sound and fury signifies anything at all.
Will Sheff is a sponge rather than stone and sucks up the contemporary influence of [a]Arcade Fire[/a]’s [a]Tom Petty[/a] impersonation on [b]‘Rider’[/b], but the first album in three years from widescreen Americana romantics [b]Okkervil River[/b] comes into its own when he forces some particularly oblique and unique strategies into practice. A shining highlight is [b]‘Piratess’[/b], which sounds like Scott Walker fronting [b]‘This Is Hardcore’[/b]-era [a]Pulp[/a], complete with ‘solo’ played on the fast-forward and rewind buttons of a cassette player. Talking of the Walker Brother, his ‘unique’ techniques surely have an influence on the use of a flying filing cabinet crash as percussion on [b]‘White Shadow Waltz’[/b].
“It’s a dream now, I’ll describe, let your mind drift on down, like so,” frontman Will Sheff croons on “Lay of the Last Survivor”. He’s not being insistent, just endearing. Six albums in tow, Sheff’s Okkervil River adds new layers to its intricate web of lyric-heavy tracks, all complacent with being hyper-literate and fully orchestrated.
Okkervil River is a band perhaps best characterized by their layered sound and through-provoking lyrics. They have been using every orchestral instrument you can name since their debut, and the literacy of Will Sheff, the mastermind behind just about everything you hear on any Okkervil River album, permeates the lyrics as deeply as it does the band’s name, taken from a short story by Tatyana Tolstoya. But as the work of a mastermind, it’s no surprise that after five albums and six EPs that the sound on I Am Very Far takes a new direction.
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.
Okkervil River has consistently demonstrated a knack for balancing conceptual hijinx with good, solid craft. Their breakthrough third album, 2005’s Black Sheep Boy, starts with a cover of the titular Tim Hardin number and billows out from there with a thematically related song cycle, and its follow-up, 2007’s The Stage Names, centered on the theme of pop culture and its signifiers. But interesting back-stories only go so far; fortunately, songwriter Will Sheff can be relied on to create earworm melodies and pair them with grad-level clever story-telling that never tips over into pretension.
THE ANTLERS “Burst Apart”. (Frenchkiss).
Welcome to Will Sheff's double fantasy, a sprawling 2-LP opus complete with a stand-alone lyric book. Okkervil River's seventh full-length was reportedly cut in short, chaotic sessions, at times featuring two of everything (drummers, bassists, pianists) and up to seven guitarists, with Sheff obsessively editing and overdubbing. Perhaps as a result, I Am Very Far is the local indie folk outfit's most divisive and difficult work to date.