“It’s a dream now, I’ll describe, let your mind drift on down, like so,” frontman Will Sheff croons on “Lay of the Last Survivor”. He’s not being insistent, just endearing. Six albums in tow, Sheff’s Okkervil River adds new layers to its intricate web of lyric-heavy tracks, all complacent with being hyper-literate and fully orchestrated. On I Am Very Far, Sheff abandons the more poppy sensibilities that streamlined his past efforts – 2007’s The Stage Names & 2008’s The Stand-Ins, specifically – and instead digs deeper, crafting an intense portrait of seemingly personal annals that feel both vague and beautiful.
I Am Very Far is Okkervil River’s longest effort to date (by a mere few minutes) and it feels like it. Eleven tracks long, the sixth album yanks its listener to a myriad of locales, courtesy of Sheff’s impeccable knack for seemingly floating above fiction. (Or is it non-fiction?) At almost 35, Sheff continues to solidify himself as one of his generation’s strongest songwriters. “A slit throat makes a note like a raw winter wind,” he screams on album opener “The Valley”, spitting out rhymes as if he’s subtly touching upon any hip-hop roots he may have. He sounds severe, determined, and, blame it on the patrolling aesthetics, but angry, too. Later on, he waxes poetic on “Show Yourself”, bleeding his inner demons out like Robert Smith on his deathbed as he whispers, “And I will skim, my little sail, my friends all shivering on the rails,” eventually concluding, “I’ve felt enough.” Sheff entertains in these puddles of lyrical genius; he overwhelms, too.
Part of the problem with I Am Very Far is that he’s felt too much. It’s impacting to the point of bruising. In the past, this worked wonders (see: 2005’s Black Sheep Boy), but on a few tracks here, it’s overkill. On the lurching “White Shadow Waltz”, Sheff channels Win Butler some, only he’s a tad too distant lyrically to make the sort of thriving connection – especially for such a monotonous haul. To pair it with the swing and strike of “We Need a Myth”, another climber that leads to vacuous chambers, was an ill decision in sequencing, but even alone, it’s not as intriguing. Musically, they’re both enchanting, though only in parts. The string section of “Myth” tugs the right areas, as do the manic background effects on “Waltz”, but altogether, it’s too repetitive to retain its charm.
Instrumentally, that’s a minor concussion. So much of the music’s daunted by reiterated ideas that, in some cases, you can tell there’s a melody or beat that’s run away with Sheff’s heart, simply because he refuses to let it go. That’s quite a problem, especially when the songwriter’s also at the controls. In the past, the group’s self-production worked to its advantage. Their first three records remain landmark achievements in the Austin collective’s catalogue; they were never too glossy nor too gritty. That sort of aesthetic continues on I Am Very Far, but it’s just not as organic. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Sheff admitted that some of the album’s recording sessions (specifically those involving a larger band) were “incredibly difficult”, with some songs taking up to 12 hours a day to record, explaining, “We found things sounded best when people tried to completely drain their playing of individuality and just become part of this gigantic, faceless musical machine.”
That’s incredibly telling here. It’s no doubt tight, but far too rigid. With the exception of a few tracks (“Rider”, “Your Past Life As a Blast”), the majority of the record finds itself stuck in this lucid depression, where it’s far too dark to see. There are moments of clarity – the delectably lush “Lay of the Last Survivor” or the moody pop of “Piratess” come to mind – but, for the most part, Sheff gets lost here. Perhaps then, the album’s title makes sense: I Am Very Far. If that’s the case, someone should send out a search party to find him. You won’t have to look too far – at least, not yet.