For Will Sheff, inspiration comes in bursts. The sessions for Okkervil River’s career-defining albums, 2005’s Black Sheep Boy and 2007’s The Stage Names, each yielded enough material for companion sets. Both of those sequels felt like wannabe siblings, but them’s the breaks.
At its best, Okkervil River fuses pub rock swagger, alt-country longing, and the grievances of a self-important literature professor. That creative spark went missing from Sheff’s band’s last two records, which felt more like market-oriented consolidations of prior styles than grand statements.
On Away Sheff’s spark is back – apparently he needed to jettison his crew to reclaim his muse. Away still carries the band’s name, but it’s an Okkervil River album only in the sense that All Shook Down was a Replacements one – except that Away is good. Okkervil is essentially a brand name anyway, given that Sheff has always been its visionary and sole constant.
Opener “Okkervil River RIP” pretty much lays out the entire solo turn rationale, conjuring images of spent former greats and namedropping casualties like Judee Sill. It’s the sort of gorgeous slow-build epic with which Sheff used to close albums – perhaps denoting Away’s new beginning. “I didn’t open up my mouth to just piss and moan,” he insists midway through this statement of intent, and I can imagine longtime observers sneering “yeah, right,” but Sheff does spleen venting so well.
Away’s biggest departure is its instrumentation, which includes decent helpings of woodwinds and strings from contributors more formally proficient than former lineups (Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg, Okkervil’s highest profile alum, makes a return appearance). Most traces of rock moves are gone as well. The twangy, relatively brief (at four minutes) “The Industry” is an outlier – and guess what? Sheff doesn’t like where it’s headed. “It seems the cheaper that the music starts to get/ it’s like they’re trying to make us cheap along with it,” he grouses.
Taking their place are a batch of six-to-seven minute flights of free verse in the spirit of Astral Weeks or ambitious folkies like Tim Hardin, especially on the elegant “Call Yourself Renee.” Sheff’s songs have always been word-stuffed but on this track and a few others he seems to dispense with the shackles of couplets and verses almost entirely.
With a running time close to an hour Away has its soft patches, usually when Sheff gets too stripped-down and slow-paced (see “She Would Look for Me”). But most of the album is populated with winners like “Judy on a Street” and “Frontman in Heaven,” one of several tracks on which he recalls dreams of dying- with fairly mundane consequences. The man has plenty of life left.