Album Review: Okkervil River’s “Away”

– by Finn Smith

Okkervil River’s latest album Away is the first release from Will Sheff in three years. It hosts an impressive list of collaborators including the acclaimed New York-based music ensemble yMusic and C.J. Camarieri.

It’s a transcending album that provides an emotive snapshot into lead vocalist Sheff’s life during a time of personal confusion and turbulence. In many ways, Sheff has turned over a new leaf, enlisting an entirely new group of musicians to make up the Okkervil River band. This provides the album with a unique sound that’s isn’t like any other Okkervil River album, Sheff said “It’s not really an Okkervil River album and it’s also my favourite Okkervil River album.”

“2013-2015 had been a strange time for me. I lost some connections in a music industry that was visibly falling apart. Some members of the Okkervil River backing band left, moving on to family life or to their own projects. I spent a good deal of time sitting in hospice with my grandfather, who was my idol, while he died.”

The writing process acted as a form of therapy for Sheff, allowing him to confront issues and challenges in his life in a creative and somewhat comfortable manor. He said “I wasn’t thinking about any kind of end product, the idea was just to write through what I was feeling, quickly and directly. Eventually, I realised 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…I felt like I didn’t know where I belonged.” This notion of personal discontent and the associated challenged is quaintly present throughout the album.

The lead track and first single from the album, “Okkervil River R.I.P.” is a stripped-back melancholy number that begins with a soft, contemplative guitar riff, building into an upbeat melody. The song address Sheff’s journey to find the strength needed to keep moving forward in the face of adversity. The lyrics “bad chance coming” is juxtaposed against “good chance coming”, suggesting that even in times of struggle one can find hope.

Other standouts include “Comes Indiana Through The Smoke”, an anthem for the battleship his grandfather served on during World War II, “Judey On A Street”, a smooth evocative love song, and “Marry On A Wave”, highlighting the femininity and beauty he sees in God.

Overall I found the album quite enjoyable, Sheff’s powerful and thought-provoking lyrics are beautifully accompanied by the smooth acoustic sound of yMusic. I would definitely recommend giving it a listen.

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