In February of 2004, Okkervil River’s Will Sheff left his home city of Austin, Texas and holed up in a friend’s house in rural Indiana during the dead of winter. When he left, he emerged with the songs that would make up the 11 tracks on the band’s outstanding 2005 album, Black Sheep Boy. It sounded claustrophobic, paranoid, like the sound of someone losing his grip on sanity. And that very real feeling of a man losing a battle with his senses is exactly what made it so damn impressive. To drive that feeling home, Sheff made a point not to hold too many rehearsals before the band entered the studio, so that whatever came out on the other end would be imperfect and raw by design. That may sound pretentious or overthought, but to hear the album is to understand this man knows exactly what he’s doing.
In 2009, Sheff sought inspiration outside of Austin yet again, driving up to his birth state of New Hampshire, isolating himself to work on writing a series of songs that he would ultimately narrow down to another lean 11 for I Am Very Far. Yet instead of tapping into paranoia or the fading, ethereal grip of one’s own mental stability, Sheff sought something more epic and mighty, holding short recording sessions in which an expanded version of the band, featuring seven guitarists, two drummers, two pianists and two bassists, converged to piece together one of the biggest sounding albums of the band’s career.
This massive sonic effort is readily apparent within the first snaps of snare in opening salvo “The Valley,” which twists and turns through imagery of being “fallen in the valley of the rock and roll dead” and “thrashing to the clatter of the rock and roll hung.” Meanwhile, there’s a rich Rhodes groove to “Piratess,” which sounds like a far darker version of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” and “Show Yourself” makes elegant use of its space to create a haunting starkness that seems bigger than the song itself.
There’s still a sense of discomfort that permeates I Am Very Far, and a sinister, violent side that hangs over Sheff’s lyrics like a monster lurking just beneath every shadow. But the album nonetheless seems much less defeatist than the romantically glamour-free The Stage Names or as blood curdling as the harrowing narratives on Black Sheep Boy. Rather, there’s a sense of dreamy ambiguity to these songs, an innocence and sense of wonder that often eludes Sheff’s poetically cynical lyrics. And yet there’s also a lingering twinge of sadness throughout it all, one that yearns for the kind of illusion that never arrived in a song such as “Our Life Is Not a Movie Or Maybe.”
While thematically in tune with the band’s catalog, these songs nonetheless are separate islands unto themselves rather than part of an overarching narrative or concept. The upbeat, stomping waltz of “Wake and Be Fine” is a telling first single, as the band rips through a jerky rock progression beneath Sheff bearing witness to “Villains on the creep and killers in the crowd are carving apart our childhood home.” Yet there’s a promise of escape and salvation just around the corner, even if illusory, as Sheff sings “Someone said to me, ‘It’s just a dream/ Why don’t you wake up and see? It’s fine.’” And with “We Need a Myth,” Sheff extols the virtues of something false to believe in, “Like in our beds/ we were just kids/ like what was said by our parents.”
Despite the distance implied in the title I Am Very Far, it’s an album that’s nonetheless quite inviting, more so than some of the band’s previous efforts. Even when Sheff is bleating grotesque lines like “There’s a hole in my throat/ you can note my last wheeze if you need,” he delivers them with a rock star heroism that reinforces the thrill in the band’s brand of escapism, no matter how unglamorous that sometimes is. Pair that with the biggest rock `n’ roll orchestra you can fit into one studio space, and the result is a heavy hitting and cathartic work of top-notch American rock music.