Release Date: Apr 27, 2018
Record label: ATO
Ambition has never been in short supply where Okkervil River are concerned. Band leader Will Sheff has found inspiration in all manner of seemingly unrelated subjects, from the struggle with substance abuse that plagued Tim Hardin to the recollections and relationships nurtured in the tiny New Hampshire hometown where he was raised. With Sheff and his colleagues rarely appearing unwilling to take a wholly inward glance, the band's emphasis on illuminating melodies is a constant, even though the music's been occasionally tempered somewhat by evocative emotion and winsome reflection.
Okkervil River vocalist Will Sheff— much like The National's Matt Berninger— has the kind of voice that, regardless of lyrics, conveys an inherent and infinite melancholy. That's something that's pervaded his entire body of work, whether in the forlorn and simple majesty of early Shearwater— the band he co-founded soon after Okkervil River and then left a few years later— or within the increasingly complex and ambitious compositions of Okkervil River. That's perhaps not better embodied than by the opening track on this ninth studio record, "Famous Tracheotomies," in which Sheff relates his own experience of that surgery as a child to those of famous people throughout the ages.
May God have mercy on the polyglot. Will Sheff has a bit of the prophet in him. "Okkervil River R.I.P" was an appropriate opening track for 2016's Away, a loose, melancholy collection of Americana and folk wracked by pain and self-doubt. In how the song presaged what in hindsight was a clear demarcation point for the band, it was certainly fitting.
After the rain, the sun will reappear - and in this case, there will be a rainbow, too. Okkervil River's frontman and songwriter Will Sheff poured out all the anguish and pain of a cycle's end on 2016's album Away following the death of his beloved grandfather and departure of his backing band. In 2018 Sheff returns with quite a different outlook on things, one that evidently makes peace with the changing tides of life and comes to terms with the fact that all things must end.
Will Sheff being Will Sheff, and this being Okkervil River , we get something of a mixture between the two: this is an album of serious, po-faced tenderness mixed with a healthy dollop of irony. On the track, Sheff quite literally mentions the famous tracheotomies of Ray Davies, Gary Coleman, Dylan Thomas and Mary Wells against a backdrop of restrained, gleaming guitars and keys. There's even a brief refrain of Waterloo Sunset at the end of the track to show you how serious he is.
2016's Away saw Will Sheff parsing through the emotional debris left behind in the wake of a string of personal and professional hardships. It was loose, dreamy, and melancholic, but spilling over with the kind of summery, late afternoon warmth that made 2007's bleary-eyed Stage Names and 2013's nostalgia-heavy Silver Gymnasium so emotionally accessible. In the Rainbow Rain, the band's ninth long-player, is a buoyant, stylistically diverse collection of songs that signal a tonal shift away from the bucolic folk and fervent indie Americana of the past.