Okkervil River’s eighth album, Away, opens on the evocative title “Okkervil River R.I.P.” – a eulogy that both mourns souls lost and the end of the band as we know it. The Will Sheff-led project has always been in a state of flux in terms of its ever-changing backing band lineup. After The Silver Gymnasium, though, Sheff was unsure of the band’s future, and Away marks the first album to be recorded with a random selection of session musicians and contributors, rather than a set band. The effort therefore is the closest Okkervil River has come to a solo Sheff album, and his own personal strife is the focal point throughout this funereal album.

In all honesty, it wouldn’t have been surprising if Sheff had decided to release this as solo material, considering how it breaks with Okkervil River’s rockier sound. “They had some great songs/ Must have been a great time so long ago,” goes the opener, Sheff’s emotional, cracking vocals a perfect unadorned pairing with the simple finger-plucked acoustic guitar. And, while keys are an Okkervil River mainstay, here they only heighten this mournful and nostalgic tone, as Sheff sings about the death of his grandfather and Judee Sill.

Sheff’s sadness doesn’t feel overwhelming, though, likely because several of these dirges have a bittersweet buoyancy to them. Somber lyrics like the plaintive acoustic number “Call Yourself Renee”’s “And there’s a tip-tap on the window that could be fate’s pale face looking in/ Energy could be in the trembling hands of a tree, or it could be light/ Or it could be nothing at all” are counterbalanced by cascading strings and soft woodwinds. And “The Industry” sounds downright happy, with its jaunty strumming, glimpses of Sheff’s higher register, jangly electric guitar riffs and the twinkling electric organ. That sonic blend goes a long way to somewhat mask the disappointment of how the life of a professional musician changes you (“I watched you turn into your very opposite/ Into everything we were trying to reject”).

There’s a striking balance between these “happier” songs as those that fully embrace the somberness of Sheff’s arrangements. “The Industry” is immediately followed by “Comes Indiana Through the Smoke,” a moving acoustic ballad about the death of Sheff’s grandfather that imagines the USS Indiana (on which his grandfather served during World War II) taking him away in death. It’s a testament to Sheff’s sincerity that the transition from bouncy guitars to funereal trumpets and back to brighter indie electric guitar on “Judey on a Street” never sounds unbalanced.

But it would be remiss to give the impression that the nine songs on Away are in any way straightforward, relatively bare folk elegies. There is a fervent complexity to Sheff’s arrangements, especially on the longer tracks. “Judey on a Street” is breathtaking in its languid evolution, at once hurried and content to play itself out naturally. The backbone of the track is the flurried keys that intermittently join vaguely Afro percussion and indie rock guitar lines. Whenever the song seems to drift into complacency, a wood block, sweeping violins or horns will interrupt the calm, urging the composition forward. “She Would Look for Me” even features a two-minute flute and electric guitar breakdown.

Reinforcing the very personal nature of Away, the final two tracks on the album close the effort out with Sheff’s anxieties. “Frontman in Heaven” somewhat interrupts the flow of the album with its gruff guitars and Sheff’s breathless, self-admonishing lyrics. But even Sheff acknowledges the change in tone here, shouting, “There are voices that filter up through the silence/ And ‘Calm down,’ says the Sky Man, ‘you’re raving!’” All of that self-aware morbidity and anxiety leads into the seven-minute introspective finale “Days Spent Floating (In the Halfbetween).” In the plucked guitars and Sheff’s pseudo-monotone, there’s a hint of the band America, but the process of the song’s very construction only emphasizes Away‘s self-therapy and meditation. Sheff wrote down the first sentence that came to him every day for a month, and, as in all the other songs, Sheff remains preoccupied with loss, an overwhelming desire to escape and being in a state of flux.

Self-therapy is a fairly accurate lens through which to view Away. Sheff seems to use these nine songs as a way to purge his mind of sadness, feelings of inadequacy and existential anxieties. As he says in “Frontman in Heaven,” “We are born wired-up and our heads are all flooded with messages/ That get harder to pick out, except at the start and the end.” It’s not the end for Sheff or – as Away proves – Okkervil River, but major events make us all introspective. In Sheff’s case, he has used this pain to not only create a comprehensive folk rock album but an album that pushes him beyond the comfortable sound he had developed over Okkervil River’s recent history.

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