Review Summary: May God have mercy on the polyglot.
Will Sheff has a bit of the prophet in him. “Okkervil River R.I.P” was an appropriate opening track for 2016’s Away
, a loose, melancholy collection of Americana and folk wracked by pain and self-doubt. In how the song presaged what in hindsight was a clear demarcation point for the band, it was certainly fitting. After Away
, there was some doubt that Okkervil River would even remain a thing; that Sheff would come back two years later with an entirely new band and a sound light years away from that dreamy grief should be surprising, but Okkervil River long ago forgot the concept of a band in favor of becoming a vehicle for Sheff’s emotional turmoil and incisive lyrics. Certainly this hasn’t been a bad thing: I’m of the opinion that Away
and 2013’s The Silver Gymnasium
are perfect because
they bore so deep into Sheff’s encyclopedic neuroses, married to an eye for craftsmanship that has few peers in modern indie. In The Rainbow Rain
suffers a bit from Sheff following his muse to a wholly unexpected place, where the guitars unfurl like starbursts, Coldplay surfaces as a touchstone on the treacly “How It Is,” and clichés like “if you’re gonna love somebody / you gotta lose some pride” pop up more than usual. “In places, the record deals with trauma, betrayal and shame, but actually, it’s supposed to be a good time,” Sheff has said, and that’s the general vibe of In The Rainbow Rain
cked up, but enjoyably so.
The dip into more maudlin territory may be the result of the more democratic process that birthed this record – Sheff’s incorporation of the Away
touring band into the newest iteration of Okkervil River extended to the songwriting as well – or it may simply be Sheff’s way of letting his hair down. Either way, In The Rainbow Rain
is an uncommonly jaunty listen. It’s difficult to imagine the Okkervil River of Black Sheep Boy
putting a track as singularly California cool as “Don’t Move Back To LA,” a knowing wink if there ever was one. When Sheff both spits on and wraps himself in that stereotypical Angeleno artifice, polished to that ‘70s, Laurel Canyon sheen, you can be forgiven for thinking the initial smirk was the whole story, rather than the exquisite homage the track becomes. While there are more lyrical clunkers than perhaps expected, in particular “Love Somebody” and the trudging, faux catharsis of closer “Human Being Song,” Sheff remains the best in the business of marrying compelling metaphors for the jumbling mess of human life to first-rate hooks. “Famous Tracheotomies” is an immediate highlight, a catalogue of famous artists who went through the titular procedure, like an infant Sheff once did, and often didn’t come out through the other side. It’s an odd little autobiographical ditty that organically builds upon itself over and over again before finishing as a resounding celebration of human frailty and life. It’s a rare gift to be able to turn something so cheesy on its face into a touching portrait of empathy.
That dexterity is apparent in the lush sonic palette Okkervil River draws from here. On the epic “The Dream and the Light,” a track that somehow never feels as long as it is, Okkervil River raise a lighter in the air to ELO before down-shifting to optimistic adult contemporary on “Love Somebody” and then proceeding to get lost in the hazy, twinkling soundscapes on “Family Song” and “Shelter Song,” two sides of the same breezy coin. “Pulled Up The Ribbon” is certainly the most arena rock Okkervil River has ever gotten, mainlining off the sort of riff you could have sworn you’d heard on the radio before. That the song can share space with the slight, rambling “External Actor,” a twangy alt-country ditty, without severing the wide-eyed optimism that is In The Rainbow Rain’s
most persistent aesthetic is perhaps the record’s finest achievement. “You gotta learn how to hang with the freaks and the hicks / in the heat of the lot you gotta learn what is and what is not / and you learn what isn’t is not a lot,” Sheff sings on “External Actor,” before ending with a carefree intonation that resolves into Okkervil River’s version of a lullaby: “Neighbor-love and brother-love / and blanketing love of God above / sigh of the river far from shore / silence and the voice don’t speak any more.” The affection and ache of human connection contrasted with a natural beauty, empty and vast yet ultimately reassuring: if that isn’t a fine summation of Okkervil River in 2018, I don’t know what is.