Somewhere along the way, Will Sheff became indie rock’s de facto poet laureate, working from a densely literate perspective that weaved American folklore, morality tales and rock ‘n’ roll mythbusting, turning Okkervil River into one of the most prolific and serious bands of the current generation. He did it while slowly backing away from himself, too. While some earlier Okkervil recordings took confessional, heart-on-sleeve approaches to the typical singer-songwriter tropes of unrequited love and betrayal, the most recent records–companion releases The Stage Names and The Stand-Ins–projected Sheff’s perspective onto a cast of characters, picking up on the idea that “a good writer can simulate a page torn out of somebody’s diary, but actually tell you a broader story,” as he told the AV Club in 2007.
Okkervil River’s sixth full-length studio release, I Am Very Far, pushes Sheff and company’s literary chops to the max, telling eleven separate stories linked by loose emotional impressions rather than grandiose thematic rapture. To start, there’s the album’s title, which reflects the recording process: rather than knocking it out in one chunk of studio time, the band wrote and recorded while they were on the road. That feeling of spatial displacement runs through I Am Very Far, which opens with the warring stomp of “The Valley” wherein Sheff reimagines rock n’ roll as some Western trail of tears where friends fall “in the valley of the rock n’ roll dead” and slit throats pile up next to skinned bodies.
From that raucous start, it’s a bolder, darker band: Sheff’s songwriting has always walked the line between collapse and triumph, but I Am Very Far matches his most unsettling imagery yet with a steady stream of moody and sweeping instrumentals. There’s the oozing, downbeat “Piratess,” which sings of jezebels and their murdered lovers, the sweeping flourish of “Rider,” the melancholy lilt of “Wake and Be Fine.” Okkervil River previously flourished for their ability to pick and match bits of rock n’ roll conventions to match to Sheff’s ornate lyricism, but this album affects the sonic mood you’d think was theirs all along based on lyric sheets and cover art: stormy, brooding, windswept, majestic, insidious. Pick your adjectives. They’re like a kingdom gone to rot, each song a crumbling castle trying to stay up–it’s not their most exciting material, but their most atmospheric to date.
Sheff might’ve been looking for answers to how his band fits into the margins of tradition: Okkervil River served as the backing band for Roky Erickson, one of the original rock nomads, and as he sings on “We Need A Myth,” “And if all we’re taught is a trick / Why would this feeling persist?” The feeling that your art is worth it even if rock n’ roll is a lie, maybe. It’s hard to put the finger on the emotions that I Am Very Far crawls between, but Sheff probably wanted it that way. Okkervil River has never provided easy answers in their albums–unless you read the many interviews with Sheff, who always seems willing to explain what he can–and I Am Very Far is another fine album in an increasingly finer canon.