When speaking about the most influential songwriters of the current millennium, rarely does Okkervil River‘s Will Sheff get mentioned. It is a surprising thought as their efforts have always been intelligent concept albums. From The Black Sheep Boy to The Stand Ins to The Silver Gymnasium, they challenged our perceptions on what music ought to be. They shared elaborate stories and fantasies, as oppose to mindless jargon and descriptions of emotions. Every word was chosen with care, and the resulting lyrics and songs seamlessly intertwined into majestic music tomes.
On Okkervil River’s latest album, Sheff abandoned his studious and linear approach. There was no single idea or concept in mind. Instead, Away is an outpouring of emotions – of grief. It is Sheff revealing his soul and thoughts as he dealt with the dissolution of Okkervil River and the passing of his grandfather. In the end, though, concepts can be heard on Away. It is not a concept album in the traditional nor Okkervil River sense, but the nine songs on Away have the New Hampshire native coping with death, self-doubt, and his own mortality. There is no 12-year old boy, no ambitious actor, and no fallen folk star. The main character in the entire album is Will Sheff.
Away, as such, is unquestionably Okkervil River’s most intimate and personal album. It is also arguably Sheff’s most straightforward and, startlingly, most vulnerable output. The opening track, “Okkervil River R.I.P.”, clearly sets the stage for the record and Sheff’s mindset. The song is the collision of the two major events hitting Sheff at the time, paying tribute to the band he founded in the late ’90s and to his late grandfather. There is, however, denial in Sheff’s words, as he sings, “You’ve got a bad day coming, a sad day coming now. I’ll wear a white suit and black sunglasses to the last mass now.”
“The Industry”, which comes as close to an Okkervil River song with its folk-rock vibe, is steeped in self-reflection and condemnation. Sheff honestly assesses his life, where he lost himself for a time as he chased accolades and fame. As he shares, “And look at us, just two dumb country hicks trying to bum rush that VIP. Up there, out where the beautiful people live, but is that ever who we even wanted to be?” The track best represents Sheff starting all over again.
The moving “Frontman In Heaven” similarly sees Sheff looking back at his life and sharing his regrets. At times, it feels like an apology to a former lover as well as to himself. The song is not a downtrodden one, but it is an uninterrupted revelation into a deeply personal individual. It feels like a confession with Sheff seeking forgiveness and redemption, as his grandfather’s death undoubtedly weighing heavily on him.
With “Judey on the Street”, Sheff moves away from the introspective and returns to being a fable writer. The swirls of the flute, oboe, and strings give the song a pleasant chamber-pop vibe and a fantasy feel. Sheff calls it a love song, but it is shrouded in mystery and uncertainty. Will the slipper fit? Will she awaken from true love’s first kiss? Is she the right one? “Mary On A Wave” is a soft rock number that offers a counter perspective to traditional views. There is an element of Father John Misty as Sheff deconstructs God and religion.
Most of Away, however, is dedicated to Sheff’s grandfather. The melancholic “Days Spent Floating (in the Half Between)” and the intimate ballad “Comes Indiana Through The Smoke”, a song about the battleship Sheff’s grandfather served on, are dedicated to his hero. It is more than the individual songs, though, where the late Thurston Holmes “Bud” Moore’s, a jazz trumpeter, influence is heard. Orchestral arrangements and flourishes of jazz and chamber-pop augment Okkervil River’s folk-rock approach. The additions of jazz double-bassist Noah Garabedian, guitarists Will Graefe and Benjamin Lazar Davis, drummer Cully Symington, pianist and vocalist Sarah Pedinotti (who is better known for her project Railbird), keyboardist Jared Samuel, and the classical ensemble yMusic give each song a dramatic and even theatrical depth. Their talents perfectly complement the raw emotion of Sheff’s voice and his poignant lyrics.
Would Mr. Moore be proud of what his grandson has produced? You’ll have to ask Will Sheff and those who knew Mr. Moore best, but Away is unquestionably a wonderful and powerful experience akin to Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie and Lowell. While it doesn’t have the grandiose storytelling of previous Okkervil River albums, Away might be Sheff’s most rewarding. It is, as such, not only one of the best albums of 2016 but also one of the year’s most important.
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