I’m posting my thoughts throughout the week on Okkervil River’s new album, I Am Very Far. PREVIOUSLY: Day One.
Jonathan Meiburg, a long time buddy of Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff, was a key member of Okkervil until he amicably left the band in the wake of 2008’s The Stand-Ins to concentrate on his own act, Shearwater.
Meiburg and Sheff’s respective groups toured together and shared a split album in the past, but didn’t have a whole lot else in common. You might be able to say that both of them shared the general direction of “folk-rock.” Even that, though, is tenuous, and finds both groups making some serious diversions from charted territory.
The “charted” part is about half a pun, since Shearwater has been working on a trilogy of aquatic-themed records, closed out with 2010’s The Golden Archipelago. All three of them were albums that built up some delicate sonic beauty as they also assigned some difficult listener homework with Meiburg’s occasionally super-dramatic singing style and the band’s unusual song structure.
That was where I heard I Am Very Far coming from, the first time I approached it. The very first track, “The Valley,” –– which features Meiburg making a return for backing vocals –– seems to build off the same ideas as Shearwater. It’s all about the denial of satisfaction, leaving you waiting for a second movement that never comes, as the song descends into noise and cacophonous voices. As an opener, it’s a bold statement of what’s to come.
“Piratess” doesn’t change that first impression. The Shearwater influence can’t be heard by this track two, except that “Piratess” seems deliberately constructed to disturb fan expectations. If those aren’t programmed beats backing Sheff’s delicately slinking vocals, then they’re at least an electronic drum setup, a weird, weird thing to hear on an Okkervil record. The format of one of their songs used to be a lot easier to peg down –– Sheff would wail and play the acoustic while the band filled in around him. Judging by the first two tracks, such a dynamic isn’t at play anymore. The point of origin is hopelessly obscured.
But, the more I listen to this album, the more points of connection there are to their past work to be found. A slow, loving tune like late album track “Hanging from a Hit”, despite some out of control dynamics, is still remiscent of some of the moodier moments off Black Sheep Boy. If anything, what seems to be forsaken by Okkervil River on a song like that are the hooks of The Stage Names and The Stand-Ins that would grab a listener on the first go.
Even a song like “White Shadow Waltz” has this feel to it –– that is, until an actual scream and loud crash of something midway through. Then, suddenly, Sheff is singing from across the room.
As much as its still Okkervil River, there’s a drive for redefinition that the band has never indulged this much before.
The relationship between Meiburg and Sheff has always had a sweet feel to it. In the aforementioned The Stand-Ins, the two share the first song, a duet called “Lost Coastlines.” Together, they expound on the trials and tribulations of the road and the role of the rock ’n’ roller. “And every night finds us rocking and rolling on waves wild and wide,” they sing together. “Well, we have lost our way; nobody’s gonna say it outright.”
Their reveling in their destruction makes a moment that never sounded so beautiful. But, the sea has knocked the two of them apart. Meiburg might be an influence, but he’s not the right lens through which to see I Am Very Far. More and more, it seems like this might be a defining artistic statement for Sheff as an individual, for better or for worse.