Album Review

I Am Very Far

I Am Very Far

by Okkervil River


Jagjaguwar
8.5 / 10
17th May, 2011

Reviewed by Courtney Sanders


On I Am Very Far, Okkervil River have managed to simultaneously explore new sonic territory while marrying the ongoing thematic concern of front man and wordsmith Sheff to this new direction. The result is an assault about the human condition, on your human condition.

This is a confusing review to write. I recently interviewed bassist Patrick Pestorius and he assured me that I Am Very Far was “not a concept album in any way”. Breaking from the tradition set by double-concept albums The Stage Names and The Stand Ins, Okkervil River apparently wanted to explore a new writing and recording methodology and push their sound forward. They did this by researching ethnographic music and recording the album in five short studio bursts, three or four tracks at a time, rather than having an ominous deadline for The Entire Album looming over a single studio stint. This room is unequivocally present in the sonic departure I Am Very Far presents from previous outings. However lyrically it still sounds like a concept album. Word-smithing front man Will Sheff is still obsessed with exploring the tapestry and nuances rife in the human condition; an obsession arguably portrayed most eloquently on their breakthrough, 2005’s Black Sheep Boy. “The word-smithing thing, that’s really Wills gig, it’s an entirely separate thing,” noted Pestorius during the same interview. And this sentiment becomes the crux of the group when taken into serious consideration. Okkervil River are two sides of the same coin: an expansive musicality recorded and toured by both the core group and a series of session musicians that together form an eleven piece band, and Sheff as lyricist writing dense, Steinbeckian odes that – due in part to Sheff’s responsibility for the skeleton of every song - weave into the fabric of the music seamlessly.

Musically, I Am Very Far is the most collaborative of any Okkervil River album to date. The rhythm section has created a monolithic and architecturally stable framework for the rest of the band to slot into, which they do inherently. Take second single and the track chosen by the band for a Letterman appearance recently, ‘Rider’. An instinctually minimalist drum beat and bass section augments the cacophony of three guitarists, a pianist, a cellist and several other percussive elements (bells, triangles etc.) who interact animatedly around the centerpiece; an interplay between Sheff’s acoustic guitar and their unique appropriation of gut-wrenching piano interludes. Lead track ‘Wake and Be Fine’ is similarly rife with such collaboration; all staccato and jumpy and jutting and stop-start, much like this sentence, actually.

However, within these sonic assaults lies both the dark subject matter of albums passed and the balladry that accompanies it. As Sheff introduces ‘Hanging from a Hit’ with the line “Drag her out of the water”, he is introducing a female protagonist lost in her own mind. A sister to ‘A Girl in Port’ (The Stage Names) it utilizes the same instrumentality of the aforementioned; minimal acoustic guitar cements the occasional piano melody, all secondary to his voice and the emotional delivery underpinning it. Tracks like ‘Wake and Be Fine’, ‘Rider’, and ‘White Shadow Myth’ utilize Sheff's ability to elongate a verse for syllabic sake, which when in play discusses the necessity of recovering from the shit situations we can and are presented with, and escaping modern society (‘Rider’).

The charm of I Am Very Far lies here; Okkervil River as a band have embarked on new sonic territory and as a result taken Sheff’s ongoing thematic concerns, recounted as novelistic tomes, with them.




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