Daytrotter, back when it worked a bit more like your typical music blog, used to have a neat feature where a writer would blog their listening to a new album over the course of a week. These days, they’re too busy putting out sessions with great artists every day to be doing anything like that. So, I figured I’d take up the gauntlet. The first week I got ahold of Okkervil River’s new album, I Am Very Far, I blogged my reactions to it each day. The album comes out tomorrow, May 10.
You could argue that the deciding factor for Austin-originated Okkervil River finding their current level of success was the concept record. Their breakout record was 2005’s Black Sheep Boy was from a set of songs inspired by late, tragic songwriter Tim Hardin, continued later in the EP Black Sheep Boy Appendix. The two full-lengths to follow, The Stage Names and The Stand-Ins, explored ideas surrounding playing, recording, and touring behind music.
But as much as frontman Will Sheff has been improving as a lyricist, he and the rest of the band have become more and more focused musically. The Stage Names is the perfect example, as they go from the scruffy folk-rock and spare quiet numbers of Black Sheep Boy to barnburners like “Unless It Kicks” and “John Allyn Smith Sails” designed to just destroy live.
In interviews at the time, Sheff said that he wanted the band to just get together in the studio and record the album, not relying too much on outside personnel or too-precious producing. What came out were road-tested songs like “Our Life Is Not a Movie Or Maybe” as well as songs like “A Girl in Port” and “Plus Ones” that, above all else, unfold naturally. It was a comfortable sound for the band.
For anyone who has been following Okkervil River’s recording career, I Am Very Far will come out of left field.
The press release for the album describes what sounds like the craziest production process, something that’s virtually the opposite of how The Stage Names and The Stand-Ins were made:
For songs like “Rider” and “Wake and Be Fine,”” Sheff gathered together a massive version of Okkervil River – two drummers, two pianists, two bassists, and seven guitarists, all playing live in one room – and led them on a week of live-in-the-studio marathon session, performing a single song obsessively over and over for as many as 12 hours to capture just the right take.
If ever there was a time to question Sheff sanity, you’re looking at it. (And songs of murders and overdoses and Sheff’s affinity for figures like Hardin and Roky Erickson probably gave some people pause previously.)
Going into I Am Very Far, I hadn’t read that, or really looked at any reports on the album. For all I knew, I was going to be listening to what could be the third release in the Stage Names cycle. (The Standing Room? The Load-Ins?) Well, not quite.
Opener “The Valley” sets the tone, if the tone is “Ignore all previous Okkervil River records.” Sheff’s songwriting, which he’s always aloud to balloon out in length at will, has forsook clear directions. Couple that with an airier production style and the effect is a little disorienting.
Some tracks show some Okkervil hallmarks. Sheff’s interest in Motown, best expressed previously in “Starry Stairs”, gets revived for “White Shadow Waltz”, though Sheff twists and dements it. “Lay of the Last Survivor” feels like one of their classic story songs, along the lines of “Calling and Not Calling My Ex”, that’s allowed to reveal itself as it goes at an upbeat but easy pace.
But where to begin with the closing track, “The Rise”. Sheff’s always done well when his vocals are playing off someone else’s, like former touring member Jonathan Meiburg and bassist Pat Pestorius. On “The Rise”, Sheff harmonizes with himself for a weird effect. You feel like you’re in a room filled with this oddly-intense man, made all the stranger by his idiosyncratic vocal performances.
The press release calls this album “a monolithic, darkly ambiguous work, one that doesn’t readily offer up its secrets.” That’s unambiguous code for “difficult”. At this point, I can’t disagree. We’ll have to see what the week holds.