OKKERVIL RIVER frontman Will Sheff has long been considered a cerebral character, penning near-flawless sentences, lilting with dramatic warble, and effortlessly wielding well-crafted, cinematic concept albums of decomposing pageantry. Though it seems with the band's sixth studio release and first record in nearly three years, I Am Very Far, Sheff has all but abandoned ship and succumbed to a headless Dionysian madness.
I Am Very Far begins with a trip down a dark and ominous grove with "The Valley," wherein listeners may find themselves skittish and suspicious of the slightest rustling through the branches (not to mention the gunshot snare that rings out every so often). There is a lurking presence in this song that permeates the entire record, a slug trail left by a bizarre genius, who clearly spent a lot of time alone with these songs. Sheff was the album's sole producer, and performed countless reconstructive procedures long after the studio sessions had ceased. His repetition of the words "Times 10/10 again/and another 10 million" feels indicative of this neuroses.
This may also explain why raw energy is distinctly absent from this recording. All frayed edges have been hemmed in, all the joyous garage-rock tendencies of 2008's The Stand Ins shelved, and much of the pawing emotion once derived from Sheff's careful construction of words has been redirected into grandiose sonic compulsion.
For instance, on songs like "Rider" and the album's single, "Wake and Be Fine," Sheff assembled a Noah's ark of cataclysmic rock and roll—two of everything, plus seven guitars for good measure—over which to have a screaming contest with himself. The live sessions for these tracks were recorded in a week, with marathon hours devoted to the perfection of one song. Regarding "Wake and Be Fine," Sheff told Spin magazine, "I remember that during the 12-hour recording session for this one I started having this vision of myself as a rat running down a maze, having to turn right, then left, then right, then hit a button with my nose, everything at the exact right moment or I would ruin the whole song for everybody."
Furthermore, there is a skulking monster smack in the middle of the album, scaling the walls of overindulgence with "We Need a Myth." It's an adventurous feat, opening with the strumming of 45 (yes, 45) classical guitars and effortlessly hopscotching through key changes, though ultimately it's more exhausting than anything else.
However, there is discernible beauty when the fever subsides. Songs like "Lay of the Last Survivor" and "Show Yourself" act as low doses of lithium to Sheff's blaring intensity, and "Your Past Life as a Blast" maintains a veritable groove built around playful phonetics. And even in the bellowing orchestral swells of "We Need a Myth," once your ears have adjusted, you'll notice Sheff's inimitable literary bravado. It's no "Plus Ones"—that bout of unreal wordplay contained on 2007's The Stage Names, cleverly shaping lyrical references from Paul Simon and Nena, among others—but it exemplifies the reckless intelligence that nearly won Sheff a Grammy for his liner notes on Roky Erickson's excellent True Love Cast out All Evil (for which the band provided back-up instrumentation, and Sheff produced).
Life is maddening in its unpredictability, but even more so is the existence of expectations, even with life's inherent lack of control. I Am Very Far feels like a testament to this, and puts a pin in the map of a treacherous landscape traversed—one with sharp fault-line peaks and mischievous tectonic plates shifting below—by one band with heavy cargo.