Okkervil River’s sixth album is a bold, seething piece of work, a decisive turn away from its more immediately appealing predecessors The Stage Names and The Stand-Ins. Written and recorded at the same time but released a year apart (2007 and 2008 respectively), that pair of albums was originally intended as a double – a move which would have made sense in terms of both records’ smart production and hyperactive focus on the unsavoury aspects of being in a band and of pop culture in general. But it feels good and right that this new record has a much wider and more unsettling frame of reference. It’s tricky to say what it’s about, exactly, other than to point to the sense of dread and unease that grips the listener from start to finish.
For the uninitiated, Okkervil River are a group from Austin, Texas. Characterized by extravagant arrangements, a dramatic approach to songform and the poetic lyrics of singer/songwriter Will Sheff, their music has over the past few years touched me more deeply than that of just about any other rock act. In some ways, they seem like a group out of time. Certainly, Sheff’s bookish demeanour and the grim apocalyptic visions that litter I Am Very Far put me in mind of King Crimson’s Robert Fripp and other serious-minded young men of the late 60s and early 70s. But the album also sounds remarkably contemporary and post-digital, from its lo-fi vinyl-friendly production job to the barrage of instrumentation that grips most of the songs.
“The Valley” sets the tone with its recurring sharp snare drum crack riding on an atmosphere of mounting doom. The group pile on layer upon layer of guitar, piano and strings while Sheff frantically declaims “the moon rolls dreaming through the late spring sky, where our friend lies bleeding through his jacket and tie/A slit throat makes a note like a raw winter wind/We were piled in the river with the rock and roll skinned.” The song lurches towards an erratic conclusion, the ominous refrain of “times ten” intoned repeatedly like a warning.
This level of drama barely lets up over the course of the album. The group seem possessed by an uncanny desperation, an urgency flinging them towards the mouth of some nameless chasm. The pace is relentless; except for a couple of sweet and tender interludes (“Hanging From a Hit”, “Lay of the Last Survivor”), it’s all about massed instruments, crescendo, the needle in the red. Sheff has long been one of the most talented lyricists in rock but here he excels himself, his texts bulging with devastating imagery and richly assonant wordplay (“In a yellow shadow after night comes down in a dull dumb swipe, and all’s white. Fire painting on the pines, and hawks above the timber-line, and water weeping from the ice”). His voice loaded with dynamic presence, Sheff sings of myths, prisons, screams, a man in bed with his married lover: a scarred landscape charged with weight and significance. Listening to the whole album in one sitting is a draining experience, but an immensely rewarding one too.
Meanwhile, the record is also designed to make packaging junkies like me very happy indeed. The artwork, by Okkervil River’s regular cover artist William Schaff, depicts two rather scary dog/wolf-type creatures with human hands, their blank, affectless features picked out in sunset red against a background of blue, white and black. The art and lettering on the cover are deeply embossed, while the fourth side of the vinyl itself is a beautiful etching of some kind of wading bird. But that’s only the start. Those lucky and/or rich enough to snaffle a copy of the “deluxe edition” of I Am Very Far get the album on both vinyl and CD, a 7” single containing two bonus tracks, a hardback book containing the lyrics, two 12” square art cards (one of them a laser-cut replica of the album’s papercut artwork), a large poster and a repro letter signed by Sheff, all housed neatly in a wooden box branded with the album’s title. These days artists use all kinds of strategies and marketing ploys to sell records, in an attempt to offset the losses suffered through rampant downloading of their work. But this is one of the most tempting and spectacularly designed limited editions I’ve come across. Oddly, the label aren’t saying how many copies of the deluxe edition were made; they are, in any event, all sold out at source.
(Originally published in The Sound Projector 20, 2011)