It’s 2:54 into Okkervil River’s eighth studio album, and frontman Will Sheff recounts feelings from a part of his life that died somewhere between 2013 and ’15. Sheff lost both industry connections and his grandpa during that period, when the project he calls his “favorite album by the band” but “not really an Okkervil River album” was still unplanned. Midway through the opening ‘Okkervil River R.I.P.,’ he’s singing details like there’s been little time for rehearsal, meaning less likelihood of manipulation of his words. Words and images like; “palace medicine chest” and “a quart of crocodile tears on a pink champagne glass” settle over a backdrop acoustic strings, punchy bass and keys.
Away’s sprawling nine tracks sound natural, and that’s no coincidence. Sheff and the contributing artists cut each song in one or two takes. That quality, along with a collection of arrangements, give Sheff the backing necessary to confront themes of death (real and metaphorical), love and rebirth.
In a way Okkervil’s “emotional transcript” of the years its frontman doubted the band’s future, mirrors how most people cope with the aftermath of tough times. Despite spurring the creative process, Sheff’s sorrows don’t constitute all lyrics and motifs on the album, but return every so often like when that trinket or memory reminds us of hurt we mistake as forgotten.
Song two, ‘Call Yourself Renee,’ refers to a “you” continually, hooking Okkervil’s audience into the scenes; occupying a hotel room, seeing trees outside through the windows and later walking streets alone. ‘Comes Indiana Through the Smoke’ is an anthem for the battleship Sheff’s grandpa served on during World War II. Its standout description includes engines’ screams and guns unloading during a love scene and later, the actions of nurses under pressure in the Pacific Theater. On 2015’s ‘Carrie & Lowell’ Sufjan Stevens drew from own memories but didn’t sway listeners to feel all emotions he did from the vivid imagery, and Sheff takes a similar approach here. It’s the difference between a diary and autobiography, meant to teach the audience about itself as much as the author.
Sheff and the session musicians cut the album in a Long Island studio, and the mixing occurred in Los Angeles. Over that time, Okkervil worked with jazz and avant garde artists from New York; Marissa Nadler, who contributes backing vocals, and the classical ensemble yMusic, performing orchestral arrangements by Nathan Thatcher. In addition, C.J. Camarieri of yMusic plays the trumpet Sheff’s grandfather owned — an emotive touch few tributes can outdo.
Four of Away’s nine songs clock in at over seven minutes. The scattered process of finishing the instrumentals interestingly reflects the arrangements themselves. However, the way the record fades perhaps highlights the most inspirational theme here: the possibility of rebirth through death.
An “obsessive three-day streak” of writing spawned track eight, ‘Frontman in Heaven.’ It’s a haunting account, bolstered by phrases like the narrator being “halfway up the ladder to heaven” and introspective interrogatives, “Where’s the celestial blueprint?”. However, near the end, after continual drear, the sky-climbing narrator hints he’s making good (or at least learning) from death. “I can’t wait to describe to you what I’ll see up there, though it’ll be an adjustment,” Sheff sings near the close. It’s fitting, since his “adjustment” to a death, of sorts, makes Away a must-listen.
Away is out September 9th via ATO Records.