By Andrew Hall | 18 February 2011
Ever fluid, Okkervil River never quite move in the direction one expects them to. Following another round of personnel changes—longtime drummer Travis Nelsen is gone, replaced by Cully Symington; Stand Ins (2008) touring guitarist Lauren Gurgiolo has replaced Brian Cassidy and the Wrens’ Charles Bissell—and time spent producing and backing Roky Erickson on True Love Cast Out All Evil (2010), the band opted to announce their sixth album, the forthcoming I Am Very Far, by performing album track “Wake and Be Fine” on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon in early January. With his band augmented by New Pornographer A. C. Newman and an expansive brass section, Will Sheff tore through the song as thoroughly and viciously as he tears through anything onstage. It was a perfect demonstration of what makes his band so compelling as a live act, all ramshackle fury and seemingly-orgasmic facial expressions.
“Mermaid,” the band’s first single in two years, doesn’t take this approach. Neither it, nor “Walked Out On a Line,” are particularly uptempo numbers, and neither, tellingly, appear on the album that they are ostensibly promoting. This double B-side reannounces Okkervil River’s existence to the world as a band, rather than an extension of singer-songwriter and sole founding member Will Sheff’s grandiose, prosaic songs in which a well-turned phrase can slyly and swiftly transform the meaning of everything that precedes it. Gone is Sheff’s relatively simplistic acoustic guitar playing; in its place stands slow-burning, swelling arrangements that emphasize everything but.
In fact, lyrically, Sheff remains fixated on the same essential themes that gave cohesion to his band’s last several records. “Mermaid” adds to Sheff’s collection of songs that use sailing as a metaphor for both touring and the passage of time, moving swiftly from brutality to sweetness as the arrangement grows into a wordless ending held together by a massive-sounding string section. The song opens with Sheff telling crew to “bind back her flippers and tail until international waters,” but finds himself with “too much love to bear” by its finish. The end of every verse marks another musical shift, highlighting how Sheff has learned to let an instrumental deliver the emotional punches—though that comes at the expense of the microscopic attention to detail that makes his lyrics often so good.
“Walked Out On a Line” works similarly, expanding from a simple bass-and-voice arrangement to a shuffle to a full-band rock number capped by Justin Sherburn’s descending keyboards. Sheff’s narrative remains desperate throughout, but chooses to remain calm in moments where he likely would’ve once shouted at the top of his voice, again putting attention on everyone but the singer.
Having now heard four songs—three not to be included on the album and one to be—and having read Sheff’s track-by-track breakdown of the songs, where he shies away almost totally from discussing lyrics in favor of breaking down bizarre arrangements, it’s clear that his interest now lies first and foremost in the world of production and arranging. He writes about putting together uptempo numbers with absurdly large bands, creating digital sounding percussion out of organic instruments, writing sheets to arrange a pitch-bending boombox and then doubling its melodic line on electric guitar, doubled bass guitars, throwing file cabinets, breaking objects, screaming, and creating the sound of someone “pacing back and forth inside your skull” on headphones. It’s thus easy to tell that I Am Very Far is going to be an interesting listen in ways that these two songs don’t necessarily reflect, and that it could very well completely change how this band is approached and discussed in the future.