The song titles on this album tell a consistent tale. Tracks like “We Need a Myth” and “Hanging from a Hit” show a definite pattern emerging. Sonically, Okkervil River has birthed a record that thoroughly rubs against everything that’s come for them before; thematically, they’re still consistent.
Frontman Will Sheff is still the consummate self-question artist. At the heart of I Am Very Far is what the fuck to do with this rock ’n’ roll thing.
The band’s albums, which I’ve already touched on this week, speak to the power of rock ’n’ roll. Checking out Sheff’s Twitter account only reinforces that importance, like with this tweet: “Reopening these I Am Very Far sessions is like opening the ark of the covenant.” Two things are inherent to that: the fact that the sessions were huge undertakings, featuring upwards of a dozen people at one time on some tracks, and that, and feel my point stretching here, the music has some kind of power for Sheff.
For further consideration, take a look at what he had to say back on the anniversary of Alex Chilton’s death:
He was creatively at the ultimate peak of his powers but writing from a place of despair. Not that the album was despairing, but there’s a way in which when you completely give up caring at all, you kind of throw your vanity in the toilet, and you’re like “Fuck it man. All I care about is making this and I don’t care if anybody hears it and, in fact, fuck anybody who even wants to hear it. I give up. I officially give up.” And sometimes when you do that it’s a wonderful thing, because you’re not making work that’s vain.
Read that and tell me it’s not the work of someone who attributes extraordinary power to music.
One of the great powers on display are the restorative and formative powers of music. But that doesn’t come without some kind of risk, as anyone versed in rock lore should know.
Those dangers, that balance the form’s saving force with its martyrs, are manifested here at least in part by recurring seafaring imagery. It’s not blatant, nor is this a concept album on some peg-legged protagonist. Honestly, it took me longer than I’d like to admit to pick up on all the nautical references that Sheff drops, especially since the band isn’t going all Decemberists hipster-sea shanty.
You could see why that would appeal to the man. The traveling nature of the job of the musician matches up well with a life at sea. More importantly, both worlds are invested in their own myth making. “The Valley” establishes this from the beginning, with lines like “Times ten, ten again, then another ten million fallen in the valley of the rock ’n’ roll dead.”
But the value, or at the value the listener places with music, seems to be in question. The myths that have developed in the world of I Am Very Far, “like what was said by our parents” as Sheff sings in “We Need a Myth”, warp with age, leaving us, as it is said in “Lay of the Last Survivor”, “quoting something we broke”.
“Our little world is shaking, I guess our little world is breaking,” says Sheff in “White Shadow Waltz”.
In many ways, the world of rock ’n’ roll portrayed by Sheff here is much like the album musically –– dark and ambiguous at first. Increasingly, the lyrical landscape of Sheff’s songs is filled more and more danger and uncertainty.