Okkervil River

I Am Very Far

Rating: 2.9/5.0

Label: Jagjaguwar

So it’s a new Okkervil River album, and you all know what that means: plenty of us critics will open our kit bags, sharpen the scalpels, polish the blades and dissect the absolute shit out of I Am Very Far. While there has been such a tendency to interpret Will Sheff’s songs in this manner, it’s at least somewhat understandable, as they’re usually rich with the types of poetic details and tragic characters – the suicidal poet John Berryman, the grief-stricken father of a porn queen, doomed druggies – that critics collectively gobble up. And though Sheff in interviews has met such analysis with polite petulance, releasing a lyrics book – as has been done with Far – seems either willfully perverse or slightly disingenuous.

Yet what’s most notable about I Am Very Far is not what Sheff says, but how it sounds. It’s unarguably the outlier in Okkervil River’s catalog, the most musically complicated, layered and, ultimately, over-produced and saturated thing the group’s done. For a while this expansive sound succeeds: “The Valley” opens with a synth-like retro New Wave vibe, its keyboards and drums way up front in the mix; similar tones can be heard throughout much of what follows, especially on “Piratess,” “White Shadow Waltz,” “We Need a Myth” and “Your Past Life Is a Blast.” Though Sheff’s vocals are still occasionally spat out and flow furiously, they are somewhat buried in the mix and are frequently hazy and echoed. It’s a new side to the band, but in large doses it’s brutally exhausting, eventually wearing thin and making the last third of the album drag and sound artificial and too processed.

Some songs are nevertheless reminiscent of Black Sheep Boy and The Stage Names. “Lay of the Last Survivor” is another slow and fairly stripped down father/daughter ballad, while the falsetto-sung “Hanging from a Hit” incorporates horns that would fit in well on either of those almost-concept albums. These are exceptional cases, however, and a track like “Rider” is more indicative of I Am Very Far as a whole: bloated with instrumentation – depending on the source, there were anywhere from seven to 238 musicians all playing at once on the track – to the point of detriment. The same problem plagues much of the album: the songs’ very compositions create a wall between listener and musician that didn’t exist on Okkervil River’s previous efforts. Dismiss this critique as Luddite or reactionary if you’d like, but this album at times feels coldly technical, and there is nothing here that has the emotional impact of, say, “A Stone” or even “The Next Four Months.”

There is generally less of a single narrative structure to I Am Very Far than the three albums that immediately preceded it, with Sheff’s lyrics tending to be somewhat impressionistic and oblique. The prevailing dark humor and darker moods that make Sheff’s songs so engaging sometimes surface; few indie musicians can compete with lines like, “There’s a hole in my throat/ You can note/ My last wheeze/ If you need” or “I lie back on my pillow/ And ask what her husband is like.” Sheff’s lyrical focus is, as always, dead on, a quality that doesn’t necessarily extend to these songs’ arrangements. I Am Very Far is easily the most sprawling and musically diverse record Okkervil River has created. It’s also the most inconsistent, and one that attempts to go in so many different directions that it too often ends up going nowhere at all.

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