This album has me all torn up. Upon the first listen, my only feeling was one of disappointment. I caught Okkervil River at SXSW and they played a couple songs off of this record, and I thought they were great. Hearing them through my iPod, the songs seemed to have lost a lot of their power. But, in more recent spins, I find that the album is a well-crafted collection of tunes that just doesn’t quite reach the highs that the past couple albums have forced me to expect from the band.
I love bands that evolve over time. It’s one of the things I adore about Wilco, and Okkervil River falls into that same category. Will Sheff is never satisfied with staying the same, and for that, I thank him. I Am Very Far is like no album you’ve heard before from this sextet out of Austin. It feels very much like an album that the group toiled over for a long time, arguing over minutiae until everything was exactly the way they wanted it. It loses some of the loose energy that fills The Stage Names, but it gains a strong narrative voice and the instrumentation and production shine more than on previous releases.
I have a theory about this record that may sound crazy, but hear me out: In 1966-67, The Beatles released Rubber Soul and Revolver. The first was a kind of culmination of all the work that preceeded it, and the second, a portent of things to come. I believe that with 2007’s The Stage Names and 2008’s The Stand Ins, Okkervil River have followed the same mold. Making I Am Very Far the bands answer to Sgt. Pepper’s. It may seem insane, but I really believe that this is true. Okkervil River will be known as our generations greatest working band over the next few years, hopefully they won’t break up after a couple more records.
Part of what threw me for a loop on my original listen is how shifty the album is. It kicks off with a scorcher called “The Valley,” slows things down on “Pirates,” then picks up again with “Rider.” The constant changing dynamics made my brain get crosswired or something, because I couldn’t keep up with the band. Not that I should be surprised. Okkervil River doesn’t wait around for you to catch up with them. Always on to the next thing before you’re given a chance to really process what you’ve heard, the band is truly one for the thinkers out there.
Some highlights from the album include the single, “Wake and Be Fine,” which if you like the band you’ve already heard a million times. It’s a really good song, but far from my favorite off the record. That would be the track directly in front of “Wake,” “Your Past Life As A Blast.” It’s got everything I ask for in a track-great music, words that fit like a glove, and vocals pushed to the front so you can actually make out what they’re saying. That’s important when you’re listening to a guy like Will Sheff. Especially when his words are brilliant as these:
How will we go, what do you think?
Into the dust? Into the drink?
You slipped your fears into my head,
some midnight freeway ride along with Jennifer.
Hotels, jails, hospital details.
The highway hugs the water.
I had to cross a field of screaming fire
to see the moonlight on the river.
So, overall I’m impressed with I Am Very Far. My first impression was wrong, and I guess that’s why pencils have erasers. It’s not the first time I’ve judged an album incorrectly, and it won’t be the last. Luckily I think Okkervil River is awesome enough that I would have given the album a hundred chances before I made up my mind for sure.
It comes out tomorrow. I recommend you get it as quickly as possible without using illegal means.
In case anyone was wondering, yes I am still incredibly infuriated that Okkervil River is not stopping in Chicago on their tour. It is the most ridiculous thing ever, and I will not be satisfied until they make a stop here. It doesn’t help that the opener for the tour is Titus Andronicus, another of my favorite bands. Damn it all!