The ever-probing Will Sheff embarks on a new "phase" of Okkervil River, but not without delivering a splendid folk-rock album.ATO Records, 2016
8.2 / 10
There are a few songwriters in the modern indie landscape who have been steadily churning out solid, affecting music to mostly deaf ears. For my money, Will Sheff of Okkervil River is one of the best. Since the early aughts, he’s been crafting delicate, stunningly beautiful anthems to loss and loneliness. His way with a couplet is unmatched, and he has one of the purest, most sincere singing voices to grace this reviewer’s ears. Okkervil River albums often function as equal parts literary engagement and raw heartbreak, paired with a concept or two, and with Away, they’ve maintained the emotional core of the music while exploring other, more autobiographical themes.
The album, which Sheff has said in interviews represents some kind of a shift away from the Okkervil River of old, still deals in the kind of meta, whispery folk that longtime fans will know, but the lyrical content is a little different. With songs like “Frontman in Heaven”, Sheff targets himself as well as the rooms full of “murderous boys with no songs of their own”. The most tender moment on the record is “Comes Indiana Through the Smoke”, Sheff’s sweet ode to his grandfather through the Indiana, a war ship he was stationed on. The blooming arrangement, thumping its way to a climax, reveals Sheff’s acceptance with the line, “When you find your time to finally let go”.
On opener “Okkervil River R.I.P.”, he reveals the foreboding initials in the title to be about his own awareness, and perhaps fear, of death. He compares the calm death of his grandfather, who was a musician, with that of Judee Sill, a songwriter who died “out of cocaine and codeine all alone”. The name Judee returns, but spelled differently, on the rousing “Judey On a Street”. The song concludes with the narrator banging on a drum in the afterlife, waiting for Judey to make her way down there. The Greek parallels are obvious, but it’s the simple turns of phrase that poke through the music-“rain hits my windshield like an open hand” or “Once I died in a dream/ And the world without me went fine/ And then years passed”. Ever-observant of his own career and what that means for him and those around him, it seems that the band has finally reached a transitional point. Sheff and his new lineup of musicians have finished one phase of artistic development, and if Away is any indication, he is hungry for more.