Okkervil River Goes Impenetrable

05/11/2011 4:00 AM |

Okkervil River

I Am Very Far


Six full lengths and more than a dozen years into his career, Will Sheff has had to fight throughout all of it, first to differentiate himself from the pack, and then to stay relevant at all, in the face of fast-paced, fickle trend-chasing.  At the outset, there was a small group of seemingly likeminded songwriters he was often compared to, guys who were doing something similarly based vaguely in the folk tradition, with loads of people on stage and a pronounced fondness for acoustic guitar. As that approach slowly fell out of favor in indie rock circles, and as the Colin Meloys and Conor Obersts of the world delved deeper into their own headspace (or that of, like, pirates and chimney sweeps or whatever), so to did Will Sheff. He grew in leaps and bounds as a lyricist, really hitting his stride with Black Sheep Boy in 2005, and continuing with The Stage Names and The Stand Ins a few years later, when he wrote some of the most enjoyable songs ever written about being in a band—about the act of writing songs, and even more often, about the act of taking those songs out on the road. As anyone will tell you, though, that’s not exactly sustainable subject matter.

And so now he’s switched things up a bit. I Am Very Far is the first Okkervil River record since 2003 that doesn’t have a unifying theme running throughout—and it’s freed up Sheff to flex any number of different muscles, to explore in basically any direction he so desired. Musically, it seems to have been empowering: there’s a really interesting, subtle kind of aggression at play here, where rather than just screaming a little louder or strumming a little harder, the band piles on more and more stuff until the same effect is achieved. These songs sound huge, but like they’re being held together with a string, and it makes for some seriously riveting moments. It feels, in a way, like you’re looking deeper into the inner workings of the band than you were even when Sheff was writing specifically about them. Lyrically, Sheff is still turning phrases like few others working anywhere in music right now, and he should without hesitation be talked about among the best writers we’ve got. But there’s also something missing this time around—each song is so tightly wound and dense that they can wind up seeming very distant. You’ll sing along because the melodies are every bit as strong as we’ve come to expect, but it may take some time for you to figure out what you’re even singing about. Not to worry, though—these guys aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.