Okkervil River, I Am Very Far
By drew dixon
May 10, 2011
Once upon a time, Okkervil River released back-to-back critically acclaimed albums, both of which were lauded for their warm style and accessibility. It’s been more than two years since—and perhaps two years is long enough for fans to forgive Okkervil for a distinct departure from a successful formula.
Though the world of music values risk and originality, we tend to approach such ventures pretty skeptically. However, in recent days we have seen some of music’s biggest players take their new albums in new directions. Radiohead recently released King of Limbs, which veered into a significantly darker direction than In Rainbows. And even more drastic was Sufjan Steven’s Age of Adz, whose dyslexic electronic vibe was miles away from his state albums. I Am Very Far does not represent quite that kind of a departure, but gone are the sing-along vocals and the personal accounts of rock ‘n’ roll life. However, while less immediately accessible, I Am Very Far goes to greater spiritual depths than any previous Okkervil offering.
The Stand Ins, Okkervil River’s last album, was the Ecclesiastes of critically acclaimed indie rock, deftly exposing the inherent vanities of the genre. It was an album that told very personal stories of heartbreak, deception and failed idealism, and told them in such an engaging manner that they never felt as heavy as their subject matter. Okkervil elected to shatter that bright quality with I Am Very Far and replace it with a rather ominous record. On this album, rock isn’t only vain, but utterly destructive (“The Valley”).
The arrangements of I Am Very Far are in keeping with the trajectory that the band set back in 2005 with the release of Black Sheep Boy. Will Sheff’s vocals, however, go in a far different direction. These songs are much more difficult to sing along to. Whereas Sheff previously defaulted to telling personal tales, I Am Very Far reflects more broadly on where the experience of life’s vanity leaves us. There are exceptions: “Hanging from a Hit” tells a very personal story about a destructive love affair, and “Your Past Life as a Blast” shares a valuable lesson from a prior relationship. The album’s highlights (“The Valley,” “Rider,” “Wake and Be Fine” and “We Need a Myth”) are dark, rich and refuse to be glossed over.
Given the very personal nature of The Stand Ins, Okkervil is now determined to broaden their scope to matters that face all of us—life, death and what comes next. This determination is most beautifully apparent on “We Need a Myth.” If the Ecclesiastes shoe fits, this is the lone nod to redemption and hope. As Sheff sings:
We need a myth, we need a path through the mist
Like what what was said by our parents I guess . . .
From the blessed lips of any prophet or goddess
I need a myth
Before I forget, we need a myth
As we lean in to kiss, to get two nails
Through the wrist, to get covered in blood
And to get covered in spit, and to forgive
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.
Given that the album begins with a song in which rock ‘n’ roll is wreaking destruction upon the world (“The Valley”), this seems an appropriate contrast. Granted, Sheff needs a “myth,” which seems to indicate he just wants to believe in something—whether or not it’s true. In the end, I think he finds no reason to believe that it isn’t. Either way, I Am Very Far reminds us we desperately need what Okkervil is searching for.