The Upshot: Though there are moments of beauty, overall, like many transition records, it feels half-baked, with a tentative foot in the future and a hand clinging to the past.
BY JOHN SCHACHT
Will Sheff has always expressed healthy cynicism about the businesses—art and music—he’s in. That has, in the past, worked well as ballast against the strong romantic streak present in Okkervil River’s songs. He may have been singing about tragically exploited porn starlets, delusional velvet-rope rockers or suicidal poets, but the clever, often poignant narratives came packaged with a knowing nod-and-a-wink: Isn’t human behavior absurd?
That nuanced take also created essential distance between Sheff’s archetypal subjects and what life in a rock band of middling popularity was really like. But on Away, that distance has been stripped, well, away. Suddenly, the charming raconteur on the next barstool is threatening to become that guy, the one whose conversation keeps circling back around to how his life has turned to total shit lately. “But I didn’t open up my mouth just to piss and moan,” Sheff sings on the opener, “Okkervil River, R.I.P.” Yes, well…
Of course, even when a few of Away‘s nine tracks fail to gel musically or meander down their own narrative cul de sacs, we’re still treated to some of the Okkervil River pleasures we’re accustomed to over the band’s decade-and-a-half run. But Away is a capital “T” Transition record, and though we’re ringside for most of the crises, it doesn’t often feel like it—it’s not quite clear where Sheff and Okkervil River are headed, and some of this LP’s songs suggest that that matters.
The messaging begins at the start in bold neon with the lead track epitaph, a beautifully arranged song built around simple acoustic guitar, piano, organ, and resonant double-bass (kudos to Noah Garabedian, a highlight throughout). Unlike the other long numbers on Away, though, it doesn’t overstay its welcome even as it stretches out to nearly seven minutes—largely because it hits its crescendo mark where others don’t or refuse to. Sheff remains the loquacious lyricist, painting a vivid if rambling portrait here of the losses—the passing of his grandfather, his band’s shaky status, and the music industry implosion—that have shaken his psychological moorings. When the drunken, pilled-up narrator is “escorted from the premises for being a mess,” it’s not Sheff playing the roguish anthropologist of human foibles, it’s Sheff coming apart.
Similarly, the twangy sway of “The Industry” catches Sheff surveying his band—which saw several members’ departures after 2013’s The Silver Gymnasium—from the current day, easy-peasy access end of the telescope, which is guaranteed wrist-slicing behavior (as any music journalist will attest). The song, one of the LP’s almost up-tempo numbers, leaves Sheff—and anyone over age 35—longing for those moments “When some record was enough to make you raise your fist?/When some singer’d make you sure that you exist?” Sheff’s taken on this topic before in various forms (commercial radio was once his favorite target), but the country shuffle here fondly elicits memories of the band’s precocious Down the River of Golden Dreams era.
It’s just not a question of tempo, though. “Mary On a Wave” saunters into your ear buds at the same relaxed pace as the other tracks, but in its relatively compact form (five minutes) allows its highlights—especially some nice background “sha-la-las” from Marissa Nadler—to stand out. The sparkling desperation of “Frontman in Heaven”—which is the closest Away Sheff comes to sounding like Black Sheep Boy or The Stage Names Sheff—may push it with an eight-minute run time, but it beats a lot of what surrounds it and especially what follows. The LP drifts away—figuratively into twilight and literally out of mind—with “Days Spent Floating (In the Halfbetween),” which tries to capture that sense of disembodiment that grief carries with it, but becomes just a sad sunset of synths, bongos and guitars straight off of a 70s’ America LP instead (sans missing the AM-friendly chorus).
“Judey On a Street,” the half-way point on the LP, speaks to both Away‘s transitional promise and faults. The tune borrows a pulsing tempo similar to The War On Drugs, tightening tension along the 7-minute-ride through swirling strings, regal horns and motorik-Lite beats to arrive…nowhere in particular. The cathartic payoff never shows up despite receiving multiple invitations. (If ever a song could’ve benefited from a crescendo, that was it.) Similarly, “She Would Look for Me” drifts unremarkably through its seven minutes, an effect of—as Sheff says in publicity for the record—cutting the song “pretty shapelessly.” Other cuts, too, though, feel cut from the shapeless cloth.
In that same publicity, Sheff wrote of Away that “I realized I was writing a death story for a part of my life that had, buried inside of it, a path I could follow that might let me go somewhere new.” But like many transition records, it feels half-baked, with a tentative foot in the future and a hand clinging to the past. The dynamism and dramatic musical shifts that characterize the best of Okkervil River are intentionally downplayed here, but the pretty orchestration from Nathan Thatcher doesn’t make up for its absence. Away has some fine moments, but is an LP completists will get the most mileage out of, perhaps as that curio figure in an artist’s evolution to somewhere else.
Consumer Note: Pictured at the top is a product shot of the colored vinyl edition of the album displayed at the ATO shop. Below, the copy – note color variant – currently spinning on the Blurt office turntable.
DOWNLOAD: “Mary On a Wave,” “Okkervil River, R.I.P.”