It seems hard to believe that the last Okkervil River album “The Stand Ins” was only released three years ago. In fact it seems like the band has been gone much longer than that, even when they really haven’t been gone at all. Perhaps it was the unprecedented amount of music they have released in the last 10 years, rarely going a full year without throwing something new in our direction. Such wealth of new material keeps people talking about the band consistently while also spoiling us in the mentality that the well might never run dry. The point of exhaustion was apparently 2008 though, and the reviews for “The Stand Ins” seemed to echo the band’s weariness. The melodies had begun to drag and Will Sheff’s extensively poetic lyrics were getting more predictable, and that’s without mentioning the high concept themes of the excess and vices of being a celebrity that last record brought with it. “The Stand Ins” was the second part of a two-part examination on the same topic, with “The Stage Names” coming the year before and dealing with the equally heavy subjects of porn stars and the suicide of poet John Berryman, among others. So what have Okkervil River been doing these last couple years? Not nearly relaxing as you might think, but instead they worked in support of the great Roky Erickson for his 2010 record “True Love Cast Out All Evil”. It was Erickson’s first album of new material in 14 years, and Okkervil River were his backing band both in the studio and on tour in support of that record. In 2011 the band returned to writing and performing their own material, and their new album out this week is titled “I Am Very Far”, which almost ironically sticks so close to many of the tenets they’re best known for.
Unlike the last few Okkervil River albums, “I Am Very Far” has no explicit concept as a running thread to connect all the songs together. It’s been awhile since the band has freed themselves from such constraints, and as a result there’s a greater sense that anything might be possible. This could be the album that changes everything we knew or thought we knew about Okkervil River. The record starts with “The Valley”, and purely paying attention to the instruments in the first 30 seconds bears some interesting results. An acoustic guitar and a shaker are the only two things at play initially, but it doesn’t take long for the drums to show up and turn an otherwise meek moment into something HUGE. If you’re a big fan of stadium rock from the 80s, you should be overly familiar with the echo-laden boom of somebody slamming on a single drum at a very martial pace. The track has that sort of massive feel to it, and the lyrics work towards backing that theory up with a “journey through the valley of the rock and roll dead”. So it turns out Okkervil River still have a fascination with death, specifically the death of artists and musicians, but what’s changed ever so slightly is their sound. For a band that has lyrically and instrumentally spent more than one record condemning the excesses of rock stardom, there’s almost an irony in the band’s apparent attempt to score some mainstream success this time around. That’s not to say an Arcade Fire level of success is what they’re striving for, but these songs are remarkably more expansive and inclusive than so much of what they’ve done previously. And it’s not even just the big drums on “The Valley” that provide such evidence, but the piano and strings play a large role in taking the track to the next step as well, just a mere preview of what’s to come on the rest of the album.
The staff that participated in the recording of “I Am Very Far” is about as equally big as the sound itself. Seven guitarists, two pianists, two drummers and two bassists are all coming together to contribute their individual talents, taking the band to the roster level of a Broken Social Scene, even though there are only about six main band members that will be responsible for recreating these songs on tour. Still, with such a collective you’re able to throw things into the mix that would just normally never be there, such as the tearing of paper or the fast-forwarding/rewinding of a cassette tape, both a part of “Piratess”. Those bits of extravagance are interesting, but it begs the question as to how essential they really are. With so much going on and so many different instruments at play, a song can come off as a wall of sound rather than a more studied, carefully constructed track. The word overstuffed comes to mind, being completely overwhelmed by a wave of too many things at once. A song like “Rider” is great until the final minute where everything swirls into this hodge-podge of instruments. When used economically though, the wider array of instruments at the band’s fingertips can prove beneficial. “Lay of the Last Survivor” could have been a relatively simple acoustic guitar ballad, but the small bits of woodwinds and the occasional vocal harmonies add just a touch more beauty and emotion in exactly the way needed. The same can be said for “Hanging From A Hit”, with its subtle piano, somber horns and choir of voices. In the six minute finale “The Rise”, there’s so much instrumentation packed into the song but it’s all dished out in parts rather than having everything come together in one huge cauldron of noise. The piano forms the core of the melody, but a string section comes along for the ride before stepping back for some electric guitar which then leads into woodwinds and oh so many voices. How it all ends in the final minute is just in a complete breakdown of everything, as the instruments fall off the rails and go gently into that good night. It is a credit to the band that they never rise up as the title suggests but instead whimper away to best fit the tone.
Unlike past Okkervil River records in which Will Sheff’s vocals and lyrics seem to take front and center, “I Am Very Far” proves to be much more engaging when viewed from a well-rounded perspective. Everything placed on equal footing is both beneficial and detrimental to the band. It helps because clearly Okkervil River have learned a lot about what makes for a strong melody and developed more of a sonic palette in which to showcase that. Any progression is good progression, particularly at this point in their careers. Sheff has always been the strong player on his own, and he continues to keep that strength on display even as the instrumentals catch up with him. The topics of his songs are things he’s covered before, though over multiple records that have all been thematically oriented. This time it’s just an assortment which is nice too. Among the problems this record has, an overabundance of talent and the ability to effectively utilize all of it is probably the worst offense here. The simplest solution to the problem is to scale back just a little, striving for simpler but still inventive melodies. There are also moments of general weakness, where a couple songs near the middle of the record verge on boring and fail to excite in the way the others do. Tracks like “White Shadow Waltz” and “We Need A Myth” both sound like they were taken from the book of Arcade Fire in this record’s continued bid for a wider, more popular audience. Outside of the opening cut and the late album revival “Wake and Be Fine” though, nothing else hits quite as hard or impresses nearly as much. Still, there are a couple ballads on the second half of the album that are both promising and beautiful, showing Okkervil River still gets plenty right and very little wrong. Looks like this is a step up from the comparatively weak “The Stand Ins”, but fails to quite meet the quality of the band’s finest work in the vein of “Black Sheep Boy” and “The Stage Names”. Really it’s just nice to hear another new Okkervil River album, as three years almost seems like too long to wait. Hopefully the next one will once again expand on the best things “I Am Very Far” have to offer, and we won’t be forced to sit around for more than a year or two to get it.