Few bands have maintained the album to album consistency achieved over the last dozen years by Austin’s Okkervil River. Fronted by Will Sheff – the band’s vocalist, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and only constant member – Okkervil River has developed a reputation as a thinking man’s band, peppering literary and cultural references throughout thematic, deeply-wound concept albums. Since 2007’s lyrical indie rock touchstone The Stage Names, Sheff’s songwriting has gotten more and more personal, coming to a head on Away. On his latest full length, we listen as Sheff traces the labyrinth of his own morbid thoughts in an attempt to sing his way out of an identity crisis.
Away kicks off with “Okkervil River R.I.P.,” a twinkling, building acoustic ballad whose more stripped back and folksy production evokes both the earliest Okkervil River songs as well as the cover art’s naturalistic landscape. Never shying away from self-reference, Sheff details his own feelings about the death of his band’s current state and the recent restructuring of Okkervil River (which now includes only one additional veteran member). “I was turning thirty-eight / I was a horrible sight” Sheff sings before musing on the untimely deaths of other musicians.
The intense focus on Sheff’s own mortality and all the emotions that come along with contemplating one’s own death have the potential to make Away the darkest Okkervil River record – no small feat by any means. Instead, Sheff seems to have come to some peace with what death will look like for him. “Once I died in a dream / And the world without me went fine / And then years went by,” Sheff sings on Away’s theatrical centerpiece, “Judey on a Street,” which juxtaposes triumphant swells of instrumentation with the energy of a life passing before your own eyes.
On the atmospheric strummer “Call Yourself Renee,” Sheff boldly hopes “And me, I don’t care if I come back as a single wave / Or an oriole, or a spare branch on a tree / Cause I’m not scared to die as long as I know that the universe has something really to do with me,” a lyric that paints Sheff’s songwriting in stark contrast with the nihilistic thoughts indie rockers typically hold regarding the afterlife. The penultimate “Frontman in Heaven” serves as a manifestation of many of Away’s themes, namely fame, death, nostalgia, and appreciating the subtle details from inside a life entering its second half. Eight songs into the record, you can tell Sheff is desperate for some kind of heaven, some kind of light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s heartbreaking. “And you, my weeping friend / I can’t wait to describe what I’ll see up there / But I’m sure it will be an adjustment,” Sheff sings as he continually references an ambiguous “sky man” who will hopefully welcome him to the afterlife.
Three of Away’s nine track titles feature the names of women, and the presence of a mysterious Mary, Judey or Renee (or, likely, someone else entirely) haunts many of the record’s verses that detail regretful nights in bar rooms, cars, and city streets. Love and infatuation are themes Sheff has returned to time and again, often from oblique angles like grand, fantastical fairy tales, but the approach he takes on Away doesn’t strike with the emotional weight that his own breakdown does. The question, “Would you see me my love, would you wait for me? / Would you stand by the high prison gate for me?” on the slow and schmaltzy “She Would Look for Me” feels dated and impersonal, coming from such a personal songwriter on such a personal album. “Mary on a Wave” is fine but not particularly compelling, and its refrain of “born on a wave of love” feels like a particularly lazy lyrical turn for Sheff.
The one detour from mortality that does work, and extremely well at that, is the music business fuck-off “The Industry,” a rocker that harkens back to the more upbeat style of classic Okkervil River. “I thought that it was us against the world / But now it’s me against something so big and abstract that I can’t tell what it is,” Sheff reflects, honestly addressing the changing face and focus of his band, before dropping “All while you’re out there grinding on some poor girl / Who’s backstage at the 6.8 rock fest,” a reference to polarizing tastemaker Pitchfork Media’s lukewarm response to the group’s 2013 effort, The Silver Gymnasium. The careful guitar arrangements, great melody on the refrain and shorter runtime (relative to the patiently developing 6 and 7 minute songs found throughout) mark it as the obvious single and one of Away’s strongest pieces of songwriting. But the energy built through the album’s first three songs is broken up by the pleasant but low-key “Comes Indiana Through The Snow,” where vivid, detailed lyrical imagery regarding the death of Sheff’s influential grandfather gets trapped in a song that doesn’t ever really go anywhere.
And thus, eights songs into Away, we have a handful of great tracks alongside a few that are sonically gorgeous but fall well shy of the high watermark Sheff’s anthemic masterstrokes have left in his wake. “Frontman In Heaven” feels like the overwhelming but optimistic banger we’d expect in a finisher, but rather than silence, we are left instead with sounds of the ocean leading into the atmospheric, almost ambient “Days Spent Floating (In The Half Between).” The effect, unsettling as it may be, is of Sheff actually in heaven (or at least purgatory), drifting about in an unfamiliar but halcyon postmortem clarity. “Just one day, I want to have died for a day / To disappear between two notes in a twelve-tone scale,” Sheff shrugs, and the breakthroughs he has made throughout the album suddenly feel small in comparison to the feeling of a consciousness slipping through the seams of reality.
In an excellent pairing, Away somehow manages to sound like its cover artwork, incorporating sunset-colored acoustic flecking, bird-clearing string and piano moments, and actual field recordings of nature. It would be a stretch to call the arrangement and production inventive, but every instrument sounds warm, real and intimate (likely bolstered by the recruitment of seasoned jazz musicians), and the vocals settle into a nice valley between textured guitar strumming. But at nine longer-than-average tracks, Sheff really needed to bat a higher average for Away to sit at the table with his obscenely strong middle catalog. The result is a pretty darn good album, but not an excellent one, which feels like a disappointment after waiting three longs years for a consistent and prolific artist to put out his eighth LP. But Away has at least proven that Will Sheff is still far from running out of interesting ideas, and as long as he continues to document being eaten alive by his own self-awareness, Okkervil River won’t be resting in peace anytime soon.
Article by HR Huber-Rodriguez.