Okkervil River forces you to put up with a lot of meta-textual nonsense. In fact, I resent them for the very reason that writing a review of their albums almost requires using bullshit phrases like “meta-textual.” I don’t think they’re insincere or phony, but it’s hard not to picture songwriter Will Scheff high-fiving himself after he spins yet another elaborate, abstrusely worded musical exercise that references a handful of other artists’ songs, the very song he’s writing, other songs he’s written and, of course, Will Scheff in the process of writing the very song he’s writing. It’s fucking exhausting, but this is what happens when you let a former music critic have a go at songwriting. If any other music critics want to take a cheap potshot at Scheff, you can start referring to the latest Okkervil River album as I Am Very Far…Up My Own Ass.
But, though you’d never know it from the preceding paragraph, I like Okkervil River. In fact, I’ve loved them. Their most recent album, The Stand Ins, was my favorite album of 2008 (a position I’ve since changed, but still, it’s quite a lovely record). And though I used the preceding paragraph to mock Scheff’s self-referential nature, that same habit informs his music in meaningful and compelling ways. Okkervil River’s albums practically serve as an outlet for Scheff to deal with his crises of conscience and confidence. He knows too much about music to ever stop evaluating and re-evaluating his worth as an artist. Sometimes it means he gets a little too clever with his songwriting, but more often than not, Scheff channels that confusion into gut-churning, visceral rock ‘n roll. It almost seems like a bonus that his melodies are almost uniformly strong, and the band has considerably grown as instrumentalists and arrangers since Okkervil River’s formation.
All of these traits get a serious workout on I Am Very Far, probably the most bombastic Okkervil River album yet. Scheff’s howl is at its most primal, and his quieter voice dramatically breaks more than ever. Grandiose strings swoop through the heavier tracks, and lilting orchestration makes the more solemn material positively float. In short, the band went all out here.
That approach has its ups and downs, but when it works, which is often, it solidifies Okkervil River as a band of tremendous power. “The Valley” is the latest in a string of great album openers from the band, stomping forward with gunshot snare hits and heavy strings mimicking Scheff’s vocals. “White Shadow Waltz” is four-and-a-half minutes of building, and while anyone can see the destructive outro coming a mile away, it’s no less effective for it. Similarly, “Show Yourself” is tense and moody, and projects a huge cathartic end, but it doesn’t come until after Okkervil River craftily throw in a fake climax one minute before the real one. That’s the sort of cleverness from this crew that I can really appreciate.
At their weakest though, Okkervil River coast on their past successes. “Rider”, though packed with instruments, does nothing that “Pop Lie” or “Black” didn’t already do. And “Lay of the Last Survivor,” though perfectly pleasant, won’t help the band shake that alt-country tag that they otherwise seem so desperate to leave behind.
Tellingly, two of the finest moments on I Am Very Far find the group working in uncharted territory. The slinky “Piratess” is practically electro-pop, built around a rhythm section seemingly stolen straight from “Billie Jean,” and Okkervil River wear it surprisingly well. The other, album highlight “Your Past Life As A Blast”, is a gregarious beauty, tumbling over the same melody and groove for five-and-a-half minutes and consistently topping itself in poignancy. This is the joy of being an Okkervil River fan: they make brash, imperfect albums flecked with bad ideas that’ll be ironed out the next time around and replaced with new ones, but they’re constantly evolving and constantly figuring out what they are. And the dividends of that process are usually some of the more substantive thrills rock ‘n roll can provide.