On a warm Austin evening in late June, Okkervil River returned home for the first stop of their current tour, debuting material from their ninth studio LP, Away. The show was a part of a mini-festival sponsored by Lone Star, the pride of cheap Texan beer, and a sizable crowd filled the Stubb’s Amphitheater. Onstage with a different lineup than the last time they were in town, the band played new songs, but also dipped back in their catalog to play a handful of tracks from Black Sheep Boy. Towards the front of the venue, a couple hundred diehard fans sang back every word, and though the band and city had changed, for a few minutes it felt like 2005 again. Will Sheff smiled at the end of the set, remarking that he didn’t know what to expect being back in Austin, but the warm reception was the best possible outcome.
Nostalgia is a powerful emotion, one that Sheff explored in detail on 2013’s The Silver Gymnasium. Rarely examined is the flip side of that coin, the disconnect from the present that causes one to seek out the fond memories of the past. That sense of feeling lost, walking through life as a ghost in a world you no longer recognize, is what Sheff confronts throughout Away. On his most patient and considered record yet, he’s full of questions about his life, friends, family, career, and what it all means, what may be a midlife crisis on record.
Recorded during a tumultuous shift in Sheff’s life, with both the reorganization of his band’s lineup and the death of his grandfather and idol T. Holmes “Bud” Moore, Away is an album of transition and contemplation. While not consumed by grief, that loss serves as the album’s catalyst, especially on the thunderous opener, “Okkervil River RIP”. Coupled with a music video where Sheff lies in a coffin while a preacher played by Tim Blake Nelson delivers a fiery eulogy, the song is equal parts cathartic and haunting, not an elegy for a career, but a solemn resignation that a time has passed that you cannot return to. Unlike the Sheff of 2007 who filled The Stage Names with classic rock callbacks on songs like “Plus Ones”, this Sheff invokes the stories of the deaths of artists like The Force MDs and Judee Sill attempt to discover what the point of it is. By the end of the song, he’s wandering a skating rink, watching a younger band play, and pleading to hear a cover song, a glimpse of a time long gone.
That sense of drifting through life pops up frequently. On the especially poignant “Call Yourself Renee,” Sheff uses a complex non-linear narrative to tell the tale of a character who just took off, finding happiness in the small moments like picking up fast food or wandering through racks of men’s shirts at a Vero Beach Dillard’s. Over a lilting guitar and lush orchestration, the character finds peace and comfort in isolation, content with a fate hoping that “the universe has something really to do for me.” With sublime harmony vocals from Marissa Nadler and former bandmate Jonathan Meiburg, Sheff evokes quiet devastation, finding nuance and empathy within.
Sheff explained that focusing on empathy was the most significant shift in his songwriting style on Away, and that shows throughout. “The Industry” could have easily been an overly clever takedown of the music business, especially coming from the songwriter whose most beloved song proudly proclaims Okkervil River as “some mid-level band.” Instead, with a clear and sober eye, Sheff examines the state of things from a sense of compassion, not anger. Sure, he gets his digs in by mentioning the “6.8 rock fest,” but lines like, “Our world’s in freefall and we’re terrified” display genuine and valid concerns more relatable than petty.
Matching Sheff’s reserved prose are the languid, lovely arrangements throughout. Winding flutes and piccolos permeate the pale moonlight of “She Would Look For Me”. A trumpet offers a mournful cry on the heartbreaking “Comes Indiana Through the Smoke”, the album’s most personal moment, in which Sheff sits besides his dying grandfather, envisioning the battleship he served on in World War II returning to carry him to the afterlife. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the band comes together for a Who-style classic rock stunner on the triumphant “Judey On a Street”, finding an earned grandeur as the narrator pleads for help to reach the other side.
Not one to abandon the past completely, Sheff returns to the nervous energy and meandering wordiness of his earlier material on the frantic “Frontman In Heaven”, the grand conclusion the album’s arc. He alternates between ranting and apologetic, violent, deranged, and hopeful. Even “the Sky Man” tells him to calm down as he approaches heaven’s gate because he’s raving so much. The song captures all the insecurities of the album in one distilled, hyper epic. As Sheff promises his beloved that he “will sing your soul far away, up to a sparking star where all our old friends will be waiting,” it almost seems like a happy ending, finally reaching some sort of paradise.
The album doesn’t end there though. The last we see of our hero isn’t triumph and victory, but a quiet dénouement on “Days Spent Floating (In the Halfbetween)”. What was conceived as a thought experiment where Sheff wrote down his first thought every day for a month turned into a scattered tome that perfectly encapsulates the album’s message. While sparse guitars and pianos plays a dirge, Sheff sings about being lost, wanting to disappear, evenings spent wandering the streets of Brooklyn filled with regret, and drinking at Chelsea apartments to try and pass the time. “You can only spend so much time, brother, as the world’s guest,” he laments. Whether it’s Sheff or some projection, he doesn’t get to end the journey on a grand revelation. His sentence is to wander, stuck in a lifeless middle ground between feeling alive and finding closure. Loneliness isn’t about grand drama, but the numbing banality of feeling empty on a day-by-day basis, something Sheff recognizes on the last note he leaves the listener on.
Okkervil River never fell into mediocrity, but the last few records indicated that Sheff had settled into a respectable yet unchallenging groove. Away shatters that presumption with a grand statement. The album is a tremendous achievement that captures sentiments of loss, isolation, and searching for a belonging in a way that only a writer with a keen eye and empathetic nature as Sheff’s could fully articulate. He understands that there’s no such thing as a clean break from the past, and sometimes all you can do is find a way to live with ghosts and resolutely move forward. Away is the sound of that realization.
Essential Tracks: “Call Yourself Renee”, “Comes Indiana Through The Smoke”, and “Frontman In Heaven”