Coming back from the longest break in their young, breathless career, Okkervil River display a newfound confidence on I Am Very Far. Evident from the murderous first strums of “The Valley,” these typically bookish Austinites are aiming to impress, to make it known that they’ve jettisoned the bathetic acoustic balladry that dominated 2008’s The Stand Ins. “The Valley” rolls like thunder across a flatland road, loud and threatening, but once the novelty of Will Sheff’s tough-guy posturing fades, one is left wondering whether this sound and fury signifies anything at all. Sheff’s grim dimestore phrasing — “a slit throat makes a note like a raw winter wind,” among other pulpy Jim Thompsonisms — is vivid and slick, but lacking in the emotional specificity of his earlier work. “The Valley” is a stylistic red herring, meaner and more aggressive than any of the following 10 songs on I Am Very Far, but its lyrical obtuseness carries through the rest of the album.
Obtuseness is hardly the same as laziness; Sheff’s lyrics are as painstakingly composed as ever — denser here, even, than they’ve been in the past — but they rarely, if ever, betray hints of autobiography, of any deep, private feelings. Too often, Sheff’s words read like a writer’s workshop exercise, a warm-up stretching of pen and ink. If there appears to be more of a cultivated distance between Sheff and his lyrics on I Am Very Far — a distance perhaps hinted in the title — his big, bright production offers the immediacy that those pristine lyrics lack.
I Am Very Far is the first Okkervil River record produced by Sheff, and the polish of the production is impressive, especially considering the sharp stylistic turns made here. Their strengths have rarely included layering of sonic detail or instrumental dynamism, but all of I Am Very Far’s 11 songs shimmer in their own way. At points, such as on “Rider” — a rollicking, hammy piano rocker — the Something/Anything-cum-Bat Out of Hell, “sounds of the studio” technique becomes a little too obvious, but scarcely less charming for it. Other songs are layered more subtly — “Piratess,” with its twinkling, “With or Without You” keyboards; the Songs of Leonard Cohen-reminiscent intro to “Your Life As a Blast” — tracks buried in the mix, hiding little hints of other songs, without bludgeoning the listener with those references. The pianos come on altogether too strong, but the drumming, here provided by Cully Symington, is consistently crisp and multi-dimensional.
On the stately, tender “Mermaid,” the vintage Okkervil River sound — less highly processed, more intimate — makes a single, solitary appearance on I Am Very Far. But even “Mermaid”, with its softly cooed backing vocals, presents evidence of Sheff’s recent confidence. Therein lies the crux of the album’s conflict of identity; change is good, as is confidence, at least as long as they bolster existing strengths or open new avenues for thematic or musical exploration. But rather than serve as a radical departure for Okkervil River, I Am Very Far treads familiar ground with a superficial extroversion that can’t match the emotional particularity of the rest of the band’s back catalog.
Sheff, still musing over the meanings of doomed relationships, the semiotics and mythology of rock ‘n’ roll, sounds as inspired as ever, but his confidence is perhaps misplaced. I Am Very Far can only be considered a stumble or misstep on a steeply curved scale, yet it proves, even as the shock of the musical pomposity fades and familiarity sets in, to be a less emotionally generative return to the same wells from which Sheff has long drawn. Even with that muted disappointment, hope remains that this might yet be a warm-up, that these techniques are being honed in service of something greater, and that Okkervil River won’t wait so long next time to reveal their next chapter.