Review Summary: I don't know why it's taken me so long to breathe something new into my life
This is a dazzlingly euphoric and utterly stubborn album. It is rock music that resents other music; it’s other music trying to escape rock music. It is something of a testimonial: having lost nearly every sliver of the Okkervil River ensemble, Will Sheff was left with little more than the scraps of his band. Retreating, he decided to keep the band going with little more than its skeleton, re-enlisting with drummer Cully Symington and disappearing into a place faraway from the band’s recording past. The album is called Away, but it’s about arrival; about how you scrape with your old place, its memories and faces, in order to grow into a new one. Away deals with death and finality, then puts its bags down in the front room.
Considering Okkervil’s trajectory, it is raw. It comes off a nostalgia-drenched home fixture: The Silver Gymnasium was one big returning, played out like a documentary about its protagonist looking about the town he grew up. It was about all the things you go through as a kid: near-death experiences (or the ones you imagine), fights with God, early existential crises, young love affairs and pointless isolation. Sheff seemed to recognise the tragedy in not really being able to feel those things for what they were anymore without tinting them with longing. And so his history came out as the billboard version of itself: Springsteen epics about camping and sentimental trad pop about kid sadness.
This record is closer to the now. It’s about Sheff’s grandfather’s death, along with his band’s, addressing both the way you might in life: a multitude of listless emotions, organised and crashed, bitter and embracing. Parts of Away are so beautiful I can hardly believe it: in moments, the record chooses ornateness over grandstanding, and it sounds like Get Lonely as performed by Nils Frahm. In other moments the sageness disappears and verses spill like guts, jubilant in their rock ‘n’ roll bloodiness. Sheff has been capable of all this before, but this record sounds like a freeing experience, an attempt to make a fresh start without sacrificing a single piece of history.
It begins with “Okkervil River R.I.P.” and holy ***. This song initially sounds like a lost Sunday, a picking pattern that walks around in circles like someone trying to find a way out of an utterly lonely day stuck in the house. Its melodies begin to swing up from the roots and create something of an older, bigger Okkervil tune: a solid band climax given overflowing lyrical addendums by the Just One More Thing of rock music himself: “I was escorted from the premises for being a mess!” he shouts way after it’s pertinent to. It’s the most impactful thing he’s written ever, I think, and so I felt jarred when I had to listen to an album that wasn’t just the same exact emotional patterns again and again. All of this song’s depression, denial and fury simply washes away -- the musical bleed between “R.I.P.” and “Call Yourself Renee”, the record’s gorgeously arranged second tune, signals Sheff’s attempt at tying together two years’ worth of shifting feeling.
“Renee” feels evergreen. With its twinkling piano, jazz bass and blushing stringwork, it allows seeds to sow, seeking something new as if it’d just be stupid not to. Whatever you’ve been through in life, you’ve probably pined for the way it used to be one moment and ardently dreamed of carving your own way the next. “R.I.P.” to “Renee” is a mind changing. I don’t want to talk about Away like it’s the grief process, or anything, but its sequencing feels conversational, each fluid interlude weighing up how it’s been rough and how it soon might not be. This record treats commiseration with downtrodden fanfare on “Comes Indiana Through the Smoke” and then excitedly, eagerly, impatiently taps like clockwork on “Judey On a Street”, racing into the future with the same reflections.
On “Judey”, Sheff goes momentarily out of body. He chants “help me to the other side!” like a ritual, the instrumentation suddenly evaporating -- the strings hurry upwards, the flutes cascade and the trumpets drone, everything suddenly echoing like the ghost of its song. I’m not sure any Okkervil River song has ever achieved this kind of euphoria -- not even in the carefree random song generations of I Am Very Far has a song flown this high without knowing it has to come down. Considering that this record is, as ***ing ever, weighed down by real-life details of a cruel rock establishment (“The Industry” as well as the relentless, remorseless “Frontman In Heaven”, which falls into shouting matches worthy of American Music Club), it’s nice to hear Sheff is capable of disappearing rock music, making something that feels hopelessly and idealistically pure.
I have always admired that Sheff wants to be making the next Okkervil record. I’ve never heard him say “return to roots”; he’s let himself be trapped in them, maybe, but he’s always thrived to make his favourite record to replace the last, one that sounds weirder and further away, more whatever he feels like than whatever feels like him. Away obviously makes sense as an Okkervil River record -- it has the jokes and the ballads, the country flickers and the rock cheeseballing -- but it also feels like a stranger. There are moments I don’t recognise and arrangements I can’t place. It feels silly, really, to point that out -- considering this record is about a new leaf in Okkervil River’s long history, it’s almost tautological to point out that something sounds different. But for Okkervil fans, there will be something extremely strange about listening to Away, no matter how beautiful and brilliant it is.