Okkervil River - I Am Very Far

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Jun 12 2011, 23h51

Finally. I was able to look forward to an Okkervil River album. I only heard about the band a few years ago, after their previous albums were all released, and they went on to become one of my favorite acts. They took a break from writing and recording to develop an album with Roky Erickson, then--finally--got back around to their own material in the form of I Am Very Far.

I read somewhere that Will Sheff was influenced by the scattered energy of Mr. Erickson in the studio. I can see the connection, mostly in the fact that Sheff has abandoned straightforward story songs in favor of blast-image dreamscapes. The Valley starts off with sharp gunshot drums to illustrate a friend with a "slicked back bloody gunshot to the head" and the song is instantly accessible and catchy, painting the demise of those within a rock and roll drama. But by the end ten million riders overcome the area and pound out overlaid shouts of "times ten." Piratess is a re-worked version of Murderess, for the better. It's a slow burn about a femme fatale, and Sheff croons this low and dark tune which turns out to be the only song that does cling to a story format. Rider is a poppy single whose intro calls to mind Pop Lie. It's another rock and roll tune with mythological roots, but instead of trying to piece together the subject matter it's best to just go with the rhythm on this one.

The next track is probably the least adorned on the album and is laced through with a beautiful melody. The liner notes provide an extra chunk of lyrics about a girl who "stares, and gasps and chokes, and the air scrapes her throat," so the listener could substitute this anywhere in the song they might please. Speaking of lyrics, the next ones in the booklet are for Weave Room Blues, which is the b-side to Wake and Be Fine. A mistake? A clue? I'll go with the latter, although I haven't the slightest what it could mean. So flip to the next tune, White Shadow Waltz, which echoes the atmosphere of a Poe story with its jangling extra sounds and the echoes of the titular woman who says, "The doorbell is ringing. Go see who it is. Our little island's sinking into mist." On We Need a Myth, Sheff's own back-up vocals and the drum snare are the best parts wrapped around a tune with a very broad concept. It would only function well on I Am Very Far, where it serves as a sort of explanation as to what the entire work is about. There is a dark turn that I really admire where the keys are laid over the "picture books that try to steal some old reflections for their light," but the strings eventually lift the song back up. There's real honesty when Sheff screams a character's words, "Before I forget/ We need a myth," which is followed by some serious Christ imagery. It's a moving reminder that truths create myths.

The next song is a sleepy wanderer whose entire second half is one woman's response to "what her husband is like." The piano and dual voices swell to a symphony of life and fire. As for the following tune, remember how Weave Room Blues snuck into the liner notes? There are none to be found for Show Yourself. That's okay, because this one won't deliver much by way of lyrics. It's a hard song to place, even for Okkervil River, and it was definitely the weak spot on the album for many listens. I finally came around to its contribution to the album's mood, and there is a pressuring build that eventually pays off with a wicked release of electric guitars that is now one of the most satisfying parts of the album to me. Your Past Life as a Blast is a refreshingly fun song, loose and light, which goes back to commentary on the rock and roll-inclined. There are some great lines here, such as "Will you come and do me violence?" and "No one's gonna stop me from loving my brother...not even my brother." The latter is sung by a chamber of encouraging voices. Sheff has said that he wanted to write the song that feels as if it had a chorus even though it plainly doesn't, and he succeeded because I always look forward to this track but probably couldn't decide where to jump in and sing along.

As the album winds down, we're finally treated with the first single, Wake and Be Fine, which stands alone quite well but is far better in context of the whole. This, of course, is one of Okkervil River's singular talents. The song is an incredibly well-crafted piece that serves to consolidate the world of dreams the listener has been led through up until now. There are keys, booming drums, and a mouthful of observations to test the ears...then comes the admonition to be fine. As if we could forget all the chaos on demand. But everyone is in on it: the girl, the group, and the gull all whisper or whine: wake and be fine. It is repeated over sad strings until lost in the oblivious echo of the song's conclusion. This leads us to the final chapter, The Rise, as referenced in Rider. It's comforting that the entire song takes place in the location of the song's title and we are spared any puzzling asides. It's an irony that the song descends, and the piano and strings take us all the way "down there alone," the "down" sung in the same lilt as "fine" on the previous track. It's one of those songs that seem to cheat you because it ends way sooner than you'd like. But the best thing to do here is to overcome the rise, return to the beginning of the disc, and push play at The Valley. Who figured? Okkervil River wrote an album that greatly rewards repeated listens. Thank the gods I am not very far from artists who want to submerge us into a sound--a sensation--all their own and challenge us to come out the other side. I'll be chasing the stag and rider over these musical spaces for years to come.

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