Okkervil River

I Am Very Far

(Jagjaguwar; 2011)

By Kaylen Hann | 28 April 2011

“I am alone”—“je est un autre”I Am Very Far. In the album’s title, there tussles a bold-faced, Rimbaudian anguish. And it is a bold, tussle-riddled album, this sixth from Okkervil River, filled to the brim and beyond with a theatrical display of effusive elements of such variety and viscera, they make war and make war unceasingly. Loudly. Unmistakably. It is an album that is nothing if not a veritable tower of warring, waltzing, rock and roll mattresses towering over a pea-sized question as to whether rock and roll even has a place here.

Frontman Will Sheff comes off as the artist who succumbs to or suffers under the thumb of every variety of anguish and struggle under the sun. Even in the discourse outside the songs: struggle. In beating away terms like “literary,” “country,” “rock,” or even “violence”—having embraced all of the above and also having to defend all those qualities—in a lot of deliberation and defensiveness, Sheff carries on that virtuous wrestle with songwriting that’s so minuscule it’s almost impossible not to pick it out of where it’s hidden and inflate it into everything I’ve appreciated to date about Okkervil River. And then all these attributes seem to sprout in a really organic way from a really, believably, visceral core, lying at the center of a really, sincerely, visceral kind of artist.

So visceral that it’s surprising just how guarded I Am Very Far sounds. It could be the unrelenting profusion of elements and cyclonic trials that give that impression, from the ambling waltz of “Hanging From a Hit,” to the assertive thrust and snare-accentuated crashes of highly declarative opener “The Valley,” to the almost Of Montreal-ish, brackish discotheque shuffle of “Your Past Life As a Blast.” Sheff, like Joseph Beuys’ performance wherein he locked himself up in a room for the better part of a week with a wild coyote, has isolated his pivotal push-and-pull essence in the massive content of the album. It’s…well, impenetrably epic in a way recent single “Mermaid” didn’t prepare me for.

Literally isolating himself within the task of songwriting in the first place, Sheff hid away in nature’s pretty-much Nowhere, with only the occasional company of his grandparents, to write. I never personally latched onto the The Stage Names (2007) or The Stand Ins (2008), so this return to the method of Black Sheep Boy, notably, drew me back for a listen. And with considerable curiosity.

But I Am Very Far is no Black Sheep Boy. The meat of the songs seems egregiously more concealed, for one, but Sheff’s songwriting has acquired an acute focus I don’t remember it having before. The songs are less about the intent and more about how Sheff strong-arms them into claiming their territory. Few artists fight with (and for?) an aesthetic and for “rock and roll” the way Sheff does: pursuing those words exactly like it’s a quality that wasn’t there by rights, but should have been. Capturing it, wrangling it in the mire; taking futile swings; working it into Bjork covers, into Hank Williams covers, and willing it into ballads as bleak as “Omie Wise,” even penning the term right into his lyrics. It’s penned again, right off the bat, in the chorus of ”The Valley,” between the stomping, clapping, and amplifying tensions from the strings section. Check the discontent of “Rider”—however buried it is in jingly synths and overextended vocals in the rundown of the bridge. The song runs rampant with itself. It’s a battling element that’s present there and every song after.

To some extent, it’s always been there. Right from the Stars Too Small To Use EP (1999). Even in the way the roughest of Sheff’s screeches not only grate against the back of his larynx but come off as the grate of his nails as they scrape the bottom of the barrel, searching for whatever he’s run out of or whatever used to be there and suddenly isn’t. Literary but carnivorous. Flauntingly calloused. Shouting words with a frothing spray of spittle. Romantically vicious or viciously romantic. But “rock and roll!”, he stresses. This happens in every song, in every song so covered by Sheff’s struggles and inaccessibilities, by the two drummers, two pianists, harmonicas, clarinets, two bassists, seven guitarists…is that a flute?

“I wanted to isolate myself, insulate myself, see nothing of America other than the coyote”—so Sheff seems to want to insulate himself from the listener and the listener from the music, to allow those outside of it to only experience it as the intimate, contentious relationship between the smallest of elements. But if—hear the words “rock and roll” appearing in the opening track’s chorus?—I think what Sheff wrestles with most is rock and roll itself, then it’s a fight I like watching.

What’s strange is: with all the obvious battling going on within the songs, all the rabid tearing of words away from the air, Sheff’s personal wars seem less prevalent—and even more buried. Because they’re so hidden in songs that mostly just sound like Okkervil River songs, produced with exponential resources, and because for all this whirling clusterfuck, the real battle is isolated and sealed away from us. Sheff is he orchestrator, but through all the manipulating elements, all the new band members, Sheff seems to be more at odds with his art than ever before.