Given all that Will Sheff has busied himself with in recent years—penning tracks for Norah Jones and The New Pornographers; co-writing an album with Roky Erickson—he could have easily taken an understated strategy for his next record with Okkervil River. But while Sheff has become a songwriter-for-hire, he’s still capable of big, ambitious work. Okkervil River’s latest release, I Am Very Far, is arguably the most saturated and overstated collection of songs the band has produced.
Sonically, anyway. Abandoning the narrative arc that unified 2007’s The Stage Names and 2008’s The Stand Ins, Sheff opts instead for loosely focused meditations on distance and wanderlust. The result is a sprawling and enigmatic affair whose surface charms are as out-there as the isolated title. Sheff’s emphasis on imagery and storytelling remains largely intact, and lyrically he’s as sharp as ever, winding through conjuring imagery (his resolution “to do just what the captain says and hang the rest” in “Piratess”) and playing the elusive soldier or journeyman (see the “smoke on the coast,” “piled fathers” and “soft, sighing daughters” of “Lay of the Last Survivor”) in near-perfect poetic meter.
Beginning with a quick descent into “The Valley,” the record bursts open with deafening snare cracks and Sheff’s powerful warble, evoking the urgent, bombastic rock of Wolf Parade or Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!; the more-more-more declaration of “times ten” at the song’s coda is a fitting mantra for the rest of the album.
Despite consistent insights on paper, Sheff seems to have let his attention wander too much in the studio, using everything from the grating tear of unraveling rolls of duct tape to the garbled shrieks of a fast-forwarded boombox. At points he assembles two drummers, two pianists, two bassists, and seven guitarists for excruciatingly precise live takes; Sheff’s bigger-is-better approach often results in a faceless clash of noise with little to justify its pomposity—a “gigantic fascist machine” indeed, as Sheff described the band in a recent Pitchfork interview. The lack of strong individual melodies from Sheff’s assembled player is surprising coming from a band whose chief songwriter is typically able to balance idiosyncrasy, strong lyrics, and great hooks.
Which isn’t to say the record is entirely ineffective. “Rider” is one of the band’s better moments to date, and showcases a sky-high chorus of punchy piano, timpani strikes, and Sheff’s straining vocals; here, he declares feeling “light as gas and half-assedly free/like I was in 1993.” The band seems most in its element on tracks like “Show Yourself” or “Lay of the Last Survivor”—hushed numbers that use some welcomed restraint to highlight Sheff’s inward musings.
At times breathtakingly lush and others overcrowded and tense, I Am Very Far is a bold remodeling of Okkervil River’s by-now signature blend of playful yet reflective lyrics and genre-bending electric folk. Harder to define than the band’s more recent works, I Am Very Far has a compelling darkness but over-labored precision that defies the band’s more haphazard and charming qualities. As a musician venerated for letting his songwriting do the most of the talking, Sheff’s wider palette and overbearing production mostly suffocates stories that in the past have had the room to speak for themselves.