Despite endless lineup changes and a number of ups and downs throughout his nearly twenty years as Okkervil River’s frontman, Will Sheff has always stayed true to the surreal, yet personal lyricism and folk oriented arrangements that have become the staple of the Okkervil sound. And in that regard, the eighth Okkervil River album Away is no exception. Tracks like “Okkervil River R.I.P.” and “Comes Indiana Through The Smoke” carry on the torch of Decemberists sounding arrangements and Bright Eyes-esque lyrics with Sheff’s own personal twists that have made him an underdog indie folk hero. While past Okkervil River albums have felt like the efforts of a tight knit band with a clear leader, Away is very much a Will Sheff solo album.
Away plays out as a sort of sequel to their excellent 2013 album The Silver Gymnasium, which was heavily autobiographical of Sheff’s youth and was carried by a jangly, nostalgic positivity that was somewhat of a change of pace for Okkervil. While Away continues to be heavily autobiographical, Sheff shifts the focus from his younger days to more recent, melancholy events with a deep focus on death. The opening track, “Okkervil River R.I.P.” very openly addresses the mortality in everything, whether it’s people, friendships, or even incarnations of Sheff’s band. He even references his own mortality in the title of Away’s penultimate song, “Frontman In Heaven”
Musically, Away does not always stay in one spot however, which is something that Okkervil has always been successful with. “The Industry” rolls along like an electric-era Bob Dylan song,“Mary On A Wave” floats on a psychedelic guitar tone and a saxophone hum, and “Judey On A Street” and “Frontman In Heaven” both build and ascend acceptingly towards Heaven. Those two songs in particular are still undeniably reminiscent of death, but they treat death more as an open door as opposed to an inevitability. “Frontman” really serves as the epitome of a 2010’s Okkervil River song, with bizarre anecdotal lyrics, acoustic guitar, and Sheff’s quaint, swinging vocals in the foreground being pushed forward and supported by light orchestral arrangements and bits of a sparkling piano. It’s in these instrumental flourishes and the lyrics that Away feels like familiar territory for Okkervil. Along with the less band oriented feel of the album and continuation of the thematic elements of The Silver Gymnasium, Away is going to satisfy long time fans. It does just enough that’s new while maintaining the production and lyricism that have garnered Sheff’s fan base over the years. It is those same elements however, that could keep Away from attracting new Okkervil fans. Six of the nine songs on Away clock in at over six and a half minutes. That along with the lyrical content and lack of any real “rockers” make this the densest Okkervil album to date, which is great for established fans but not so much if this is your first exposure to Will Sheff’s work.
Written by Alex Peeples