A magnificent sixth album from a band surely due to crack the mainstream.
Martin Aston 2011-04-26
A river takes in many views, and the Okkervil has most of America in its sights. Having met at college in New Hampshire in 1998, founders Will Sheff, Zach Thomas and Seth Warren moved to Austin, Texas to live together and start a band. Sheff studied English in Minnesota and the band have had a lengthy association with the Indiana-based Jagjaguwar label, while various members from various states have come and gone in the meantime. Sheff also put nine years into Shearwater (formed by former Okkervil member Jonathan Meiburg). Perhaps this explains Okkervil River’s panoramic vision, and the feeling all human life is teeming about in Sheff’s songs, which untangle the roots of Americana with sublime narratives and a diverse, musical heft. I Am Very Far, indeed.
Sheff/Okkervil have yet to get the rewards they so deserve. They’re the Wilco waiting to happen. And like Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, arguably his closest comparison, Shefff sounds both world-weary and up for a fight. That said, Okkervil are a trickier, more maverick bunch than Wilco, which probably accounts for the former’s lower profile. This, their sixth album (not counting split albums with Shearwater and Julie Doiron), will surely change that. It’s their most assured and richest, yet also their most bruised and urgent, with Sheff admitting he’d imbibed "the chaotic, powerful energy" that swirled around Roky Erickson when he produced and arranged the psychedelic legend’s ‘comeback’ album True Love Cast Out All Evil last year. But if Okkervil’s palate has expanded – choir and orchestra included, and sometimes a dozen musicians play live in the room, as on Rider – it never sounds crowded or over-baked.
Rider is the most full-blooded track, with its Arcade Fire-style throb, but that’s more the exception than the rule. The album’s lead single Wake and Be Fine is more typically sinewy, but shares the prevailing mood, helpfully nailed by Sheff as "an otherworldly, maudlin mixture of innocence and doom". At their best, Okkervil is a slower-moving and murky river, full of hidden and troubled undertows. Choose between Hanging From a Hit, Show Yourself, We Need a Myth (featuring no fewer than 45 nylon-string guitars for faux-orchestral majesty) and The Rise for the album’s most beautifully heart-wrenching moment. On top, Sheff’s lyrics are as enthralling and opulent as a novel, to the point that the hardbound book I Am Very Far: The Lyrics is available too. Fifty-one literate, intense minutes long, I Am Very Far isn’t very far short of magnificent.