Speaking about the recording of his band’s latest album, songwriter Will Sheff was quoted — “I found myself wanting to not be accessible and not be crowd pleasing and basically be self-pleasing and follow what I thought was really interesting”. Unless you have complete faith in an artist, these are the words you fear to hear. Alarm bells ring at “not be accessible” and “be self-pleasing” as signs along the roadside start to appear saying “Metal Machine Music — next exit”.
For those following the career of Austin, Texas’ Okkervil River, I Am Very Far is (as prophesied by Sheff) a considerable departure from past efforts. Notable for being the first Okkervil River album produced by Sheff, his intention to act without restraint and expectation has resulted in something that is neither their best nor their worst. Far away from the character-driven portraits of The Stage Names and The Stand Ins, I Am Very Far skirts the fringes of Sheff’s psyche, while revisiting past nautical lyrical tropes that give us the Ono-esque disco of “Piratess”.
With such an obvious attempt to avoid the familiar, I Am Very Far lacks the immediacy and the potency of previous works. The instrumentation, and indeed the meticulous musicality of the record, lends a powerful presence but where songs would charm you with turns of phrase, the charm here is absent, ushered out of the room unbidden by its distractions. And for it, there are no moments of light-hearted levity, no sweetly gushing love proclamations. The rousing “Rider“ and “Wake And Be Fine” is perhaps the obvious throwback to past glories, and obtusely stand out for that same reason.
You get the impression that Sheff takes his art seriously, serious enough to not stifle an idea if it pleases, but not sharp enough to self-edit the grand down from the grandiose, best witnessed on the “We Need A Myth“ — “Like on our beds/We were kids/Lke what was said by our parents/I guess”. You guess? You guess what? It feels like to truly understand and appreciate I Am Very Far the less questions asked, the better.