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Okkervil River

I Am Very Far

(Jagjaguwar; US: 10 May 2011; UK: 9 May 2011)

There’s something missing from the title I Am Very Far. Maybe it’s a “from”, as if Will Sheff and company have a destination in mind. Or maybe it’s an “away”, as if they’ve left something behind. To hear Sheff talk recently you’d think it’d be the second option, since he tried to “push [his] brain to places it didn’t want to go” while writing and recording this record. Listening to the record, though, this hardly sounds like just someone escaping old habits. It has a purpose, a propulsion to it, though it never leads to the places you’d expect. Instead, I Am Very Far is stuck in a fascinating way between the from and the away, and stretches itself out to bask in all the spaces in between.


It doesn’t take long to recognize this as the departure Sheff and the band intended it to be. If 2005’s Black Sheep Boy blew the band’s sound up into something darkly cinematic, I Am Very Far crumbles most of the band’s sonic trademarks, crushing them under the hefty foot of a whole new approach. Gone is the folk and alt-country vibes of early records like Down the River of Golden Dreams. Gone too, or severely altered, is the rock bombast of their past two albums. What we get instead is pop excess, a collection of 11 dramatic and unapologetically expansive pop songs. It’s a logical continuation of the band’s ever-increasing scope, but also a wholly unexpected next step. It’s bigger than its predecessors, but it’s also alien in comparison.


Much of this change comes from a change in approach to writing and recording the songs. After working on Roky Erickson’s album in 2009, among other projects, Sheff holed up in New Hampshire to write songs in (hopefully) ways he hadn’t before. The band then took 18 of his songs and recorded them in a series of short-burst, high intensity recording sessions at various studios, and then Sheff himself mixed and re-mixed the record. He re-recorded parts, added layers, tweaked levels over and over again.


Yet despite all his tinkering, the one thing you can’t say about this record is that it feels controlled. In fact, it is the band’s least structured effort, both musically and thematically. Where the last few records have built clear thematic arcs, I Am Very Far is deliberately ambiguous in its intentions. There are touchstones to Sheff’s favorite topics—you’ll still get rock ‘n’ roll mythology, bittersweet affairs, etc.—but what it all comes to is a bit tricky to untangle.
 
Cut free to roam out into the unknown, the band go just about any- and everywhere. “Lay of the Last Survivor” feel like a revision of the band’s older sounds, turning light country dust into something that is just as hazy but shimmers and moans more than it creaks. Meanwhile, songs like “The Valley” and “White Shadow Waltz” blow up the lean rock sound from the last two records into Spector-size giants. Sheff’s vocals echo deeply and the drums thunder and, if the effect is beautiful, it’s also jarring in its sheer heft. It’s not surprisingly at all to hear that, on standout tracks “Rider” and “Wake and Be Fine” Sheff added seven guitars, two bassists, two drummers, and two pianists, because you can hear virtually every player in the mix.


On top of all those layers, there’s also a heavy use of horns and strings on the record. “Rider” succeeds, for all its size, on a surprising cello rundown. “Your Past Life as a Blast” gives us maybe the most emotionally resonant moment when it swells with strings in the end, and Sheff insists, in his lilting way, that “No one, no one is going to stop me from loving my brother, not even my brother.” “Hanging from a Hit” builds to a similar crescendo, but it’s when it hollows out to just piano, voice, and horn that the effect makes its full impact.


Lead single “Wake and Be Fine” both fits perfectly into the wandering record and stands out as its most immediate track. In that contradiction, it also represents the album perfectly. Its army of guitars and rumbling percussion, the percussive keys contrasting with the dreamy guitar runs, delivers a concentrated dose of all the album’s ambitions. It also best displays Sheff’s dynamic lyricism. Though he may not have the thematic focus of past records, like Springsteen’s “Blinded by the Light”, Sheff hones in on the word-to-word sounds in his lines in a way that recalls hip-hop lyricists as much as other indie rockers. His smooth and quick delivery of internal rhymes, assonance, and alliteration pushes these songs forward effortlessly even as each wordy line leaves him breathless.


The rapid-fire “Wake and Be Fine” also somehow targets (and nearly defines) the album’s vague intentions. “We’re carrying our years around us, or they’re chasing down us,” he bleats at one point, and we get the heft of the past, but also the question of agency. How much has to come with us? How much do we have in our control to let go? If we’re moving past what we’ve left behind and toward what we’ll hold onto next, what are the steps to get there? The answers to these questions, it turns out, are non-answers. The song itself, in fact, seems to belie its own sentiments. Wake from a dream, it insists, and things will be all right, while the song itself moves from tension to dreamy space, coiling up in the comfort of the things it rejects.


If I Am Very Far frustrates with its lack of clear intentions, it also fascinates for the same reason. The bookending songs here, “The Valley” and “The Rise”, imply upward movement, even hope, but the space in between them surrounds and confuses us with layers of sound both dark and sweetly gauzy. It sometimes pushes a little too far, maybe, on the drum freak-out that ends “White Shadow Waltz” or the dissonant atmospherics that close out “The Rise”, but the album seems to succeed all the more for its imperfections. The album never holds its shape—and that lack of shape, somehow, is what defines it.

Rating:

Matthew Fiander is a music critic for PopMatters and Prefix Magazine. He also writes fiction and his work has appeared in The Yalobusha Review. He received his M.F.A. in Creative Writing from UNC-Greensboro and currently teaches writing and literature at High Point University in High Point, NC. You can follow him on Twitter at @mattfiander.


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