Wherever Will Sheff sets his guitar case down, there is Okkervil River.
Will Sheff needed to get away. In an essay accompanying the promotion materials for Away he describes the period following the release, tour, and related projects surrounding 2013’s The Silver Gymnasium, his band’s triumphant but underappreciated concept album, as “a strange time for me”, during which most of the band splintered to follow their own life concerns and he spent a significant period nursing his beloved grandfather through the end stages of his life.
An opportunity to escape to the Catskills initiated a period of self-healing during which Sheff composed countless songs, sometimes in creative bursts lasting several days amid fitful sleep. The break allowed him to experiment with his songwriting techniques, permitting more room for happenstance and spontaneity, characteristics he took into the studio with a new collection of sympathetic musicians. Over a period of three days, and with minimal guidance, the new band recorded the whole of Away, leaving only finishing details to be overseen by producer Sheff and engineer Phil Palazzolo, with mixing by Jonathan Wilson. And then there’s Nathan Thatcher’s orchestration, with its bird calls evoking both the album’s cover and the work of the recently deceased Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara.
It may seem strange to say, considering it follows The Silver Gymnasium, but Away is Sheff’s most personal collection of songs. Where the previous was a memoir of the past, the current record is a statement upon the present along with a direct rejection of the kind of nostalgia that fuels the popularity of such escapist fantasies as this summer’s Neflix series Stranger Things. In a recent interview, Sheff outlined his perspective on how our collective retreat into nostalgia amplifies our disconnectedness from our world and each other: “We’re trying to retreat into the things that gave us pleasure as little children, because being an adult and being an empathetic person in this world right now and looking all around you and seeing all the pain and ugliness and grotesqueness and danger... it’s very, very frightening.”
This is an awareness that shapes the songs on Away and which brings a sense of cohesiveness to an album that could seem less so due to the variety of its stylistic explorations. That tone is set on opener “Okkervil River R.I.P.” where Sheff guides listeners through a seven-minute, free association, slow motion breakdown. From claiming “I pilfered the king’s pills from the palace medicine chest” and “I was escorted from the premises for being a mess”, Sheff spins from memories of his grandfather “in his hospital bed” to visions of the assorted deaths of members of the soul group Force MDs and of Judy Sill’s lonely overdose death. When he sings “They had some great songs, it must have been a great time so long ago”, it’s a tongue in cheek demonstration of the oversimplification of the nostalgia trap. He offers related advice in the opening of “Call Yourself Renee,” singing “Don’t look back until you realize / You are probably not trying to look back.”
Music represents now for Sheff, and it’s a near sacred duty to create it and to protect its legacy. In “The Industry” he states the obvious (“Everyone’s just out to grab what they can get”), but that seems the least of his concerns. Sheff reveals his primary unease when he sings “The cheaper that the music starts to get / It’s like they’re trying to make us cheap along with it.” Music often forms the deepest connections to our values and associations in our memories and, as such, becomes the centerpiece of nostalgia. Sheff wants us to understand that, if we create and worship crap, the problem is not simply that we’ll remember crap, but that through the fog of nostalgia, our crap will appear as a polished gem. Sheff returns to the problem in “Frontman in Heaven” singing “It seems to me everything fine falls away” before pointing to the inanity of our mass media: “It’s going to be a ‘funky fresh Christmas’ and I don’t think I can handle it / When there’s so little dignity in anything.” If, on previous Okkervil River albums, Sheff has embraced any formulaic elements of pop music, he is certainly swimming against that current here.
Sheff has openly wondered whether Away is truly an Okkervil River album, saying, again in the press materials, “this record was me taking my life back to zero and starting to add it all back up again.” My take: If it is hard to imagine a more different-sounding follow up to The Silver Gymnasium, it is harder to imagine a better one. Okkervil River is now firmly understood as what it always was: a collective of talented musicians sharing, for however long or briefly, in the vision of Will Sheff. Wherever Sheff sets his guitar case down, there is Okkervil River.