Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Okkervil River: I Am Very Far

Okkervil River released a new album last week, I Am Very Far, and it's amazingly good. That the new album is great comes as no surprise, which is itself rather remarkable. What's truly remarkable about this band is how they give each of their albums its own distinct sound and style, and yet have consistently been putting out great album after great album going all the way back to 2002's Don't Fall in Love With Everyone You See. Really, other than The Stand Ins, a companion album to its predecessor, each Okkervil River album could be described as a pretty dramatic change in sound from their previous work. Few bands can do that for so long and never have the quality falter. It's a real testament to Will Sheff's ability as a songwriter.

I'm going to go on a little tangent here. I've seen a few people express disappointment at this album. Personally, I definitely liked it on my first listen, but wasn't yet sure I liked it as much as Okkervil River's other albums. By now I've realized I had no reason for doubt. That's actually not an uncommon experience for me. I remember listening to The Suburbs by Arcade Fire for the first time and thinking it was definitely not as good as Funeral or Neon Bible. Now it's one of my favorite albums of all time (although I still like Funeral just a bit more). In fact, it's almost always the case that I if I like an album, I will enjoy it more after a few listens than on my first listen. This leads me to believe that a significant factor in our enjoyment of music is its familiarity. The interesting thing is that the degree to which my enjoyment increases with additional listens varies immensely from album to album. Is this related to how "challenging" an album is? To how much it diverges from expectations? Perhaps.

With all that said, it really makes me wonder how many times professional music critics typically listen to an album before reviewing it. I have no idea what the answer is, and if anyone reading this can provide some insight that would be great. I do know that to me, the idea of making a definitive judgment about an album after just one, or even two or three, listens is absurd.

I've now given sufficient attention to I Am Very Far to be able to declare that it's another brilliant addition to Okkervil River's catalog. Opening track "The Valley" is a good preview for the album as a whole. It's big sounding, somewhat chaotic, and lavishly orchestrated with all sorts of flourishes from piano and strings. The second track, "Piratess," will sound familiar to many long-time Okkervil River fans. It's a new version of their old song "Murderess." The decision to remake a slow, low-fi acoustic song into a slick-sounding number with a disco-esque beat is a little curious, and I've seen some serious bitching in the song's shoutbox (this goes back to that familiarity idea, no doubt). For me, though, the song really works.

After a strong start, the album just gets better. "We Need A Myth" is the centerpiece, and a contender for the strongest track. There's so much going on in this song, and Sheff's lyrics and emotion-wracked vocals about searching for meaning in the world bring it all home.

What we're after is just this
A myth

And I'm sick

Of all these picture books that try

To steal some old reflections for their light
But desperate measures point to desperate times

Which is why

We need a myth

Strong lyrics are one thing you can always count on in an Okkervil River album. To me, Sheff's way with words surpasses any other songwriter out there right now, and it's really not even close.

"Show Yourself" is another definite standout. Incredibly atmospheric in sound, it's so unlike anything the band has done before (perhaps sounding more like a Shearwater track), and yet so, so good. I really hope this one will be a regular in their setlists; I imagine it would be stunning live. And speaking of Shearwater, Jonathan Meiburg lends some excellent backing vocals to a number of tracks on the album. He and Sheff's voices really work so well together, and I was saddened when it was reported that Meiburg would no longer be with Okkervil River, so it's great to hear him contributing to the new album.

The album concludes very strongly as well, with raucous, irresistible first single "Wake And Be Fine" leading into the absolutely gorgeous closer "The Rise." What it all comes down to is that this is yet another classic album from Okkervil River. I'd be very surprised if a better album is released this year.

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