Review Summary: 'I Am Very Far' is Sheff's biggest myth.
It’s not healthy listening to Okkervil River. We can heap all the praise we want on them for their lyrical depth, we can crown Will Sheff as the wordsmith and world-weary analyst he most certainly is, but at the end of the day you’re listening to some fu
cked up stuff. A track like “Westfall,” featured on what is essentially a break-up album from a man of literature, cuts through the treacle of silly words like ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and instead just says “when I killed her / it was so easy that I wanted to kill her again,” with a horrible shrug to its audience. And it’s not that he always writes tracks with the same shrug, nor the same psychotic theme, but they always come with the same damaging, scary
obsession. The suicide of Tim Hardin, chronicled in the dark spaces of Black Sheep Boy
, is a terrifying look at Sheff reflecting how his hero has messed him up, and that the record starts with a cover of Hardin’s famous folk loner-anthem is enough to take the myth and make it real, the album concluded with a song just as bottomless as painful in “A Glow,” but coming from Sheff himself. That’s why it’s bizarre to call these records ‘concept albums’ when Sheff is deconstructing his themes so horribly, as if they weren’t so much concepts as Sheff’s reality. It’s the same with The Stage Names
and The Stand-Ins
, supposed twin albums that don’t pretend to be from our world but become just as human when Sheff demystifies all the actors, all the porn-stars and pop rockers in the world and kicks them off their pedestal. But what’s scariest about Black Sheep Boy
, about The Stand-Ins
and so on, is that Sheff dives at these tragic themes and legends like he needs them- “I need a myth,” indeed. Tim Hardin and all the rock stars on rockaway beach are myths made real. Hasn’t he always needed one?
But I Am Very Far
is more our myth than his. Sheff stated upon the record's announcement that he was apprehensive to tell us what those four words meant for fear of taking what was mysterious out of his record. He told us that he wasn’t making music to please but rather taking it down any route that best interested him. And that explains a lot of why the avenues of I Am Very Far
are so perplexing; the record isn’t the kind of thing you crack, and not just at first; I’ve spent a good month trying to work out what I make of these eleven songs, and even with a hundred listens there’s little reveal. It feels harder than ever to tell what Sheff is thinking, more so than on his most fucked
up travels: “Westfall” was a disturbing track, but it was distinctly obvious what Sheff was saying because it was storytelling
. Here, however, Sheff’s music feels a hundred times veiled, comprised of abstract non-stories told by a hundred characters making not one moment of sense. That’s probably why “Piratess” takes an old fan-favourite, “Murderess,” and recreates it as some sexy disco song, taking whatever Big Star folk vibe it had and simply murdering it. “Piratess” now twinkles with electric guitar riffs, moves with the pulse of a bass guitar, and plays with a completely different Sheff at its centre, no longer wailing like a man lost at his pirate-laden sea. It no longer feels like a story at all, focused on its weirder groove, with its obsession to be what Sheff called the “sexiest Okkervil River song ever.” There are hand-claps. Hand-claps!
This is very much the way of I Am Very Far
. It packs an astonishing amount of things unheard of in an Okkervil River album. “We Need a Myth” feels lyrically impossible to grasp at, Sheff fending off listeners with his big-band to the left and right, forty nylon string guitars in as many hands. But it’s kind of glorious watching the rise and fall of these theatrics. No track in Okkervil River’s discography has ever quite been captured like any of the eleven here, none go off the deep end as much as “We Need a Myth” does in every second of its existence, dressed up as it may be. It bears down on us in a way that this band never used to do as a folk or rock outfit, but you’ve never heard Sheff care as much as he does here. “Hanging Like a Hit” starts clashing together with a similar indescribable need for something
that simply becomes documented by noise. Stories that Sheff just started throwing filing cabinets across the room as he recorded don’t feel unfounded at all: it’s all explosions on I Am Very Far
. They're what translate the record named on an expression we don’t understand. It’s the huge, amplified moments in “Wake and Be Fine,” and the chaotic, Arcade Fire-big “White Shadow Waltz” that makes I Am Very Far
. It’s the last fifty seconds of “Lay of the Last Survivor” that is everything about this record, with Sheff singing every word like it’s escaping from his gut. I Am Very Far
is huge, but not because it disguises itself like “Piratess” might have you think. It feels like a complete emotional release, and even if we understand zero of it, Sheff's not hiding.
In fact, for those of us waiting for Sheff’s moment as himself rather than the archivist, as someone who just writes the typically personal singer-songwriter album, we surely have it in I Am Very Far
. This is the record where Will Sheff stops talking about all of the rock stars he wanted to talk about before, regardless of the odd cryptic lyric, and talks in the first person. And to get that, you need this big-band Okkervil River- it’s not about forgetting how emblazed everything sounds or forgetting the big-band theatrics booming on the twenty-billionth stanza of “We Need a Myth.” These things all feel crucial to how Sheff would write his manic version of For Emma, Forever Ago
. He works backwards, brings in ten times the number he needs and creates a record that pummels us to pieces on every note. With more people than ever factoring into his work, Sheff creates the record that feels the most wholly his own.
On “Show Yourself,” a track that supposedly meandered for eight minutes in its first incarnation, Sheff uses all the song’s twists and turns to anchor himself at the centre, eventually shedding the unfathomably huge build to fall into the record’s most revealing (and most poetic) moment: “There is no one there to help you there is no one there to hold you / let it go. I’ve felt enough, can’t really feel it anymore.” At this point it feels obvious what I Am Very Far
: it lets go of the smoky barrooms other people got drunk in and Sheff wrote about and creates something that looks inward. Regardless of who it is we’re looking inward at, Sheff has taken away what was grounded in his older personal songs such as “Calling and Not Calling My Ex” and instead created something impenetrable and abstract. That, I feel, is what Sheff was hitting at when he said he was making music he was interested in without a care for accessibility and understanding in the world. I Am Very Far
is a record by a folk musician but without folk. It’s by a storyteller telling no stories. And yet it stands to be the material most reflective of its artist, an album that in years will surely be seen as his most personal and most misunderstood, because what is there to understand in this record? I Am Very Far
is Okkervil River’s most mysterious moment, just as fu
cked up as Black Sheep Boy
or The Stage Names
but not chasing after another name. I Am Very Far
indeed, whatever that means.