Away is Okkervil River’s eighth studio album and their first since 2013’s The Silver Gymnasium. It represents somewhat of a departure from previous efforts as frontman Will Sheff has recorded the album with an almost entirely new backing band, with contributions from Marissa Nadler amongst others. This lineup change has led to suggestions from long term fans that this might be the cult band’s final album under this name.
What may have contributed to these rumours is the title of the opening track; ‘Okkervil River R.I.P.’, a near seven-minute rumination on death that references troubled Laurel Canyon singer/songwriter Judee Sill and crams in so many words per line that Sheff sounds like he’s straining to fit them all in. This is all set to a backing track that builds slowly from a sole acoustic guitar to be joined by drums, piano, organ and a string section.
‘Call Yourself Renee’ follows, driven on by insistent percussion and joined by a double bass and horn section in the song’s midsection. A key line here, and one that resonates throughout the album, is “I’m not scared to die so long as I know the universe has something to do with me.” Sheff’s search for his place in the world and concern for his mortality continues over the course of the record.
Album highlight ‘Frontman In Heaven’ continues this, building over seven minutes to Scheff eventually wishing goodnight to the listener as he passes away at the song’s end. It’s important to note that at no point does this continual referencing of death feel morbid. Scheff sounds like he’s revelling in it, taking joy in the death of one life and maybe the beginning of another.
Another high point on the album is ‘The Industry’, which sounds like Sheff bemoaning the current state of the music industry, with digs at Pitchfork (“The 6.8 rock fest”) and streaming websites (“And the cheaper that the music starts to get/ It’s like they’re trying to make us cheap along with it”). The high quality of the musical backing continues here, with organ lines joining bright electric guitars to complement the vocals but not overpower them.
Okkervil River do make a couple of missteps on the album; ‘Comes Indiana Through The Smoke’ is a pretty but shallow evocation of the battleship USS Indiana leaving port, while ‘She Would Look For Me’ and ‘Mary On A Wave’ constitute a lull of sorts in the album’s mood in the latter half of the record.
These are minor complaints though, as ‘Away’ is an album rich in texture and with real lyrical depth throughout. On my fourth or fifth listen I was still picking out lines of interest, some dark and humorous at the same time, like “It’s gonna be a funky fresh Christmas and I don’t think I can handle it” from ‘Frontman In Heaven’. If this is Okkervil River’s last album, it’ll cause much disappointment. The lively nature of the songs and their delivery makes further listening easy, and hopefully, Will Sheff keeps this band going.