Will Sheff’s expansive language has served him well. At its best, Okkervil River’s lyrics scan like prose poetry, Sheff’s vocals sounding conversational but sliding in poetic devices and hidden structures until finished songs reveal their secrets (or at least their secret-keeping). On new album In the Rainbow Rain, Sheff’s lyrics struggle due to a mix of weightlessness and a lack of strong musical anchors. The group reorients itself with this one, matching a new lineup to a new era in Sheff’s life, and this new direction allows casual to become unemphasized.

“Famous Tracheotomies” offers hope for the record, even if it begins with one of Sheff’s writing tics, a stretch of spoken words over soft music before the song proper kicks in. It also shows Sheff’s originality as a songwriter. The concept is just what the title promises: stories of famous people who have had tracheotomies, whether Mary Wells as part of her sad decline or Sheff himself as a young child. Rather than simply reveling in curiosity, the song carries great empathy, and by the time we get to Ray Davies, it morphs into a synthy version of “Waterloo Sunset” and crepuscular comfort.

The rest of the album never catches up, though. Sheff’s band—newly formed based on the recent touring band—feels adrift. The next track, “The Dream and the Light” almost gets there. The mid-tempo ride would be fine if it was more dynamic. The Clarence Clemons-like saxophone adds some needed texture, but the song mostly bobs along for almost seven minutes. When Sheff sings, “With the agency creation has gifted me/ What am I gonna do with my poor body?” it sounds like an existential moment worthy of impact that Okkervil River would have nailed a few years ago. When the next track touches on Maxwell’s version of “This Woman’s Work” and moves into Meat Loaf territory, the album sinks to a place it can’t escape.

“Human Being Song” closes the album with another patient meditation, but this one moderately succeeds. It builds slowly, but reaches some high points. As it creates and releases tension, the song moves through phases, always keeping it relatively cool but interesting. Sheff considers how difficult it is to be a human being before realizing “I hardly see beyond my nose.” Understanding another person and their context is as demanding as living sensibly, trying to find a proper way. Sheff’s closing thought, “Brother, I believe in love,” would sound cheesy if the song hadn’t earned it. In fact, the whole album moves toward this epiphany; it just drifts too often.

In the Rainbow Rain marks a turning point of some sort for Okkervil River. It’s the band’s first true misstep, but some of that might be due to a new unit (at least in the studio) still being in the process of coalescing. Sheff seems to have new things to say, as if he’s discovering light in a dark place but doesn’t quite know how to share it yet. The band has stumbled on this one, but it feels like a result of searching for new footing, and not of having lost their way.

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