When Okkervil River released The Stage Names in 2007, I bought it and listened to it in my car on the way home from Amoeba Music. And when it finished with “John Allyn Smith Sails,” I let it start right back up again with “Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe.” For like a week straight. Somewhere in that cloud of what I thought was just me being too lazy to change the disc, I realized that I really loved the album. I couldn’t wait to hear the next song and it didn’t matter which song it was. I did not have that experience with the follow-up, The Stand-Ins. It had some great songs but, as an entire album, it didn’t grab me the same way that The Stage Names did.
Earlier this month, Okkervil River released I Am Very Far, an album that is indeed very far from the cinematic concept(ish) albums that preceded it. And that’s a good thing, because (I hate to admit this) Pitchfork was correct in pointing out that the themes that resonated so wonderfully on The Stage Names were drying up on The Stand-Ins. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a unifying idea behind I Am Very Far – it is, to my ears anyway, definitely an album about death, decay, and the blood, guts, and dirt of human existence. But those themes come across in each song without necessarily tying the songs together as what you would call a “concept album” (note – I’m listening to I Am Very Far as I write this and it might seem, in a couple paragraphs, like I’m arguing with myself about this assertion. You can deal with that, yeah?). It’s more of a “this is stuff that was on Will Sheff’s mind, perhaps because Okkervil River spent a lot of the last two years with Roky Erickson” kind of album.
Will Sheff must feel pretty good about how he produced Erickson’s True Love Cast Out All Evil, because he took the controls himself for I Am Very Far and the results, like a lot of Okkervil River’s best music, are dancing right on the line between “pretentious, yet profound” and “just annoyingly pretentious” (“Piratess” features, where some might put an instrumental solo of some kind, a cassette making that sound it makes when you destroy it by pushing fast-forward and play at the same time). So does that mean I Am Very Far is Okkervil River’s best album? I really can’t say. The soft spot in my heart for The Stage Names is basically the size of my whole heart, so I’m more inclined to tell you that album is their best, despite the fact that it might just be my favorite. Either way, though, I Am Very Far is a very good album.
It’s been billed far and wide as a “dark” record, and the recurring themes to which I alluded earlier support that claim, but I find a lurking beauty underneath the bloody mess that is I Am Jamie Farr and I don’t think the album is as hopeless as it’s been made out to be (I just realized that I have made a very similar defense of Kurt Vonnegut’s writing on many occasions). I’ve been listening to the album for basically this entire week and it occurred to me this morning that, taken in its entirety, I Am Very Far feels like a nightmare that’s exploding with turmoil and violence (“We were piled on the shore with the rock ‘n’ roll singed,” sings Sheff on Waitsian opener “The Valley”) but is tempered with sweetness (depending on how you look at “Hanging By a Hit.” Your Past Life as a Blast” is pretty positive though – it’s the main reason for that lurking beauty I mentioned), kind of like Finnegans Wake, but without the world-beginning/ending sex (yes, that’s really in Finnegans Wake. I bet you wanna read it now, don’t you?).
In that light, it’s kind of funny that I Am Very Far isn’t supposed to be a concept album (although let’s face it: what the fuck is a “concept album” anyway? Pink Floyd’s The Wall? Here’s its concept: “let’s use a spotty story of a rock star losing his goddamn mind to thinly veil the fact that Roger Waters hates – hates – the people who made him famous.” Don’t get me wrong; I like The Wall, but not because of its supposed “concept”) because to me, it has the sort of emotional cohesion that Franz Ferdinand’s Tonight had. I think it might be a stretch to suggest that after Tonight on the town, your dreams will be I Am Very Far, but there’s a sense on the latter record of descending into nightmare on “The Valley” and slowly waking from it on the super-lovely “The Rise.” Or maybe I’ve just been spending too much time with James Joyce lately.
Listeners who dug some of the rougher textures on the Roky Erickson album will be happy to note that Sheff is painting in the same thick layers on I Am Very Far. There’s stuff being broken and kicked over, Sheff layers his own screams underneath his (slightly) calmer singing on “Show Yourself,” and, as mentioned earlier, “The Valley” sounds like a poppier answer to Tom Waits’s “The Earth Died Screaming.” This is new territory for Okkervil River (The Stage Names and The Stand-Ins were both pretty clean albums, from a production standpoint), and I have to admit that I didn’t really like it on the first listen. It sounded a little too intentionally murky but a few more trips through the record and I was enjoying picking the layers apart and concentrating on a cello line here or a horn part there. To go back to the Tom Waits analogy, I felt the same way about some of his weirder stuff when I first started listening to him.
So while I Am Very Far has yet to unseat The Stage Names as my favorite Okkervil River album, it has certainly earned its place among my favorite records so far in 2011. It’s got all the literate writing I expect from Will Sheff, the subtle-yet-gorgeous melodies, and it’s still a musical step forward that was needed but doesn’t feel forced in any way. I don’t think Okkervil River was in a rut after The Stand-Ins, but they were definitely camping on the outskirts of Rutville and I’m glad I Am Very Far came along and put them on the train back home to Awesometown.