Album Review: Okkervil River ‘I Am Very Far’

Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff is a former music critic, and it therefore comes as no surprise that his band has become somewhat of a critical darling. Okkervil River’s sixth album, ‘I Am Very Far’, is the first record that perhaps threatens this reputation. That isn’t to say it’s a bad album- quite the opposite is true in fact- but rather that it is less accessible, more raw, and less polished than pretty much anything else the Texan outfit have released to date.

“I found myself wanting to not be accessible and not be crowd pleasing and basically be self-pleasing and follow what I thought was really interesting,” Sheff has told SPIN Magazine in the leadup to the release of ‘I Am Very Far’, and these words describe the album better than I ever could. Okkervil River’s music has never exactly been radio fodder, but equally there have always been a couple of upbeat, catchy, and accessible tunes on each of their previous albums (for example Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe and Unless It’s Kicks on ‘The Stage Names’). 

The closest ‘I Am Very Far’ comes to this is lead single Wake And Be Fine, which is an unmistakable Okkervil River jam structured around pulsing acoustic guitar and Sheff’s fast-paced vocals. Apart from this though, you’re not going to find another true ‘single’ on this record. Like I said though, this isn’t a bad thing: it’s just different. Okkervil River have always had literary tendencies, and on ‘I Am Very Far’ these come to the fore, taking precedence over accessibility arguably for the first time in Sheff’s career as a singer-songwriter. 

But yet equally I don’t want to make it sound as if this is an unlistenable record, because that’s far from the truth. Lead track The Valley for example is very easy indeed on the ears, dominated by a powerful keyboard and featuring the unforgettable opening line of “Watch the sun switching in the sky, off and on, while our friend stands bleeding on the late summer lawn, a slicked-back bloody black gunshot to the head, he has fallen in the valley of the rock and roll dead”. Like Okkervil River’s best moments, this wouldn’t seem out of place as a part of a poem or play.

The most powerful song of the album comes in the form of We Need A Myth, a ballad driven by incredibly visceral lyrics. To me it’s a song about the gaping difference between what we desire in our lives and what we experience as reality: “We need a myth, guess what we’re after is just this”. Sheff seems to writing about the moment we realise that what we long for in our lives is never going to actually happen, and that all we can hope for is exactly what we already have. The song reaches a mesmerising crescendo with the lyrics of:

And if all we’re taught is a trick
Why would this feeling persist?
And with the truth closing in
I must insist
We need a myth. 

I hesitate to call it Sheff’s best songwriting to date, but it’s certainly right up there, and this song resonates with me more strongly than any other music in recent memory. There’s no shortage of these stunning moments on this record, but they’re not wrapped up in the neat, catchy, and accessible shell that some previous Okkervil River songwriting has been. 

To be honest I was kind of underwhelmed by this record at first, especially seeing as it was from one of my favourite bands. I thought it lacked memorable melodies and anthemic moments, and above all else that it had the feeling of a transition record. To some extent, these concerns still stand, but I’ve definitely warmed to the album as a whole. There’s no Westfall or The President’s Dead to be found here, but if you look hard enough then you start to realise that Okkervil River have lost none of their literary poignancy. 

And besides, there are few bands in the world that do drama as well as Okkervil River. It’s most certainly high-brow music, but it’s never pretentious and is at all times still fun to listen to. It’s a record that could come from no other band in the world, and no other songwriter in the world, and ultimately that is both all you can ask for and all you can really want from a new Okkervil River album.

One Response to “Album Review: Okkervil River ‘I Am Very Far’”

  1. Beautiful review. And spot on. Maybe not an immediate “Holy Shit!” moment to be had, but a real grower of an album.

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