When music defies easy description, it’s tempting to define it by what it isn’t. In the case of Okkervil River’s I Am Very Far, it’s difficult to hear its dark, dense, mysterious songs without immediately branding them as a far cry from the straightforward rock ’n’ roll fables of The Stage Names and The Stand Ins. For a band so often noted for its emotional directness, that could be a death sentence. However, considering that frontman and lead songwriter Will Sheff has shouted out exactly what’s on his and his characters’ minds since 2005’s Black Sheep Boy, a turn toward obliqueness suits I Am Very Far just fine.
As a producer on I Am Very Far, Sheff brings some thrillingly outré textures to the table: an unspooling cassette tape in lieu of a guitar solo on “Piratess,” ghostly choral voices on “Your Past Life As A Blast,” a runaway wall of sound on “White Shadow Waltz.” There’s a sense that the accoutrements grew from and with these songs, and Sheff shows healthy (and uncharacteristic) restraint with a few of them. The excellent torch song “Hanging From A Hit,” for instance, is allowed to toss and turn in a minimalist setting that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Walkmen record.
“Hanging From A Hit” is also the frankest of the album’s 11 tracks, but without its slowly revealed tale of reluctant adultery, Sheff’s vocals and their dusky brass accompaniment would still telegraph that something’s amiss. Even at its fever-dreamiest, the record projects an urgency that marks it as a product of Okkervil River. It’s no longer the Okkervil River of The Stage Names or Black Sheep Boy, and that’s a plus: I Am Very Far signals that the band’s gifts with song and sentiment were never tied to specificity.