Here’s my theory: you can neatly divide the world between fans of Okkervil River and fans of The Hold Steady. The boozier contingent loves Craig Finn’s unhinged Springsteen act, and the more bookish folks of the world love Will Sheff’s four minute song-novels. As much as I admire The Hold Steady’s work in theory, I’ve always been an Okkervil River man myself because no one writes such thoughtful and affecting characters portraits as Sheff. For the past decade, Okkervil River has been delivering reliably great albums featuring his cast of characters acting out their roles in a larger, unifying narrative scheme devised by Sheff. In fact, the lonely characters on their last two albums, figures ranging from poet John Berryman to pornstar Shannon Wilsey, were breathing metaphors for the ways in which the wider culture fucks with your head. While I Am Very Far continues Okkervil River’s unbelievable string of successes, the album is not tied together by any grand narrative or extended metaphor. As an album, then, it can appear a little disjointed at times, carelessly ranging in tone and tempo, but taken on a song-by-song basis, the record is as strong as anything the band has put together before.
Insofar as the album has unifying theme, it can be found (sort of) in the stomping clarion call “We Need a Myth.” Myths locate us in a familiar world no matter how fantastical by being psycho-actively alive with the consciousness of the culture forming them. In other words, we need myths to tell ourselves because we’re lost. The cure offered in “We Need a Myth” finds its pathology in “Wake and Be Fine” as the prose poem of a song races to its stunning final verse:
In those miles racing over endless fields of snow. You already heard; you already know. The rescue party finally lost their hearts, and then they shattered their bones, and then they died all alone. The ships all float from beaches by themselves above the hot afternoons. Goodbye, you balloons. Adrift above indifferent clouds. Our hearts are crashing loudy on some rock where the gulls whine, “Wake and be fine.”
As the culmination of a surrealistic dream, this intoxicating rush of images (fields of snow, unmanned ships loosened from their moors, wise seagulls) loses its center, spinning out of control around an absent point. The message is clear: you are nowhere. This feeling of being lost is not simply reserved for the wider world; these characters also become lost in their own internal emotional landscapes. Consider “Hanging From a Hit,” a somber portrait of a woman who finally articulates her own misery when her lover asks about her husband: ”And I ignite inside/and I flash with fire/and I limp from life/and I’m blazing blind/and I’m surging live/and give up my mind/when I’m with him.” I’m hesitant to claim that this was Sheff’s grand plan for I Am Very Far, and it’s maybe easier to see them as convenient commanlities between songs, rather than a definitive organizing principle. But, they do point the way to Sheff’s lyrical concerns and the deep sympathy of his character portraits.
While the record is thematically rich as ever, Okkervil River are still principally a rock band with rock songs to play. The dynamic range offered by I Am Very Far is stunning, effortlessly moving between styles. And this is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Okkervil River’s progress as a band: they’ve grown a lot since the grim folk days of Black Sheep Boy. Take “Show Yourself” for example: never before has the band recorded something that begins as a quiet folk song and quickly morphs into a naked soul number and ultimately a shoegaze-y rock song that allows a snarling guitar line to dominate the pretty conclusion. Not every song follows such a wild trajectory, but every song has a clear musical identity: “The Valley” is your reckless rocker, “Rider” is your thunderous Springsteen homage, “Hanging from a Hit” is your sad-eyed ballad with a weary hearty, “Piratess” is your slinky soul number with a great backbeat. And the ways that they play off one another is fascinating, even when it clear doesn’t work. Following the raucous “The Valley” with the understated cool of “Piratess” makes so little sense that it just may make a lot of sense. But treating the songs as songs themselves, instead of threads in a larger tapestry, is ultimately a life saver for the average listener. Enjoying the song-writing and the precise instrumentation is paramount to following a metaphorical narrative.
I am an Okkervil River man, ultimately, because The Hold Steady quickly became a sad case of diminishing returns. Okkervil River, on the other hand, has continued to find ways to exploit their strengths, while minimizing their ostensible weaknesses. And I Am Very Far finds the band in an interesting spot in their career arc. Having just completed a string of thematically tight albums, the band decided to ditch the elaborate artifice in favor of a theoretically more stripped down approach. But Sheff’s songs have never sounded so baroque, so festooned with careful detailing, and the band’s albums have never sounded so full of life. It’s not as richly imagined as Black Sheep Boy or The Stage Names, but it doesn’t have to be. As a collection of stand-alone songs, I Am Very Far was perhaps the smartest career move Okkervil River could have made.
Rating: 8.5 / 10