Okkervil River are one of those bands who most casual observers will recognise the name of, but very few will be musically familiar with. The Texan rockers have been together for more than a decade, flitting between genres like the proverbial musical fly, never settling too long on one before moving on and changing their sound once more. This inventiveness has earned them deserved respect and a loyal following, but the biggest problem with I Am Very Far, the group’s sixth studio album, is that it doesn’t seem to have a destination in mind.
As we depart from Platform One (to keep the travel analogy alive), opener ‘The Valley’, we instantly recognise the direction we’re headed in, its thudding beat setting the tone for the early portion of the record. While it’s not the most persuasive or catchy of Okkervil’s tracks, its almost incantatory, chant-like refrain and foot-stomping backing has a certain allure to it. So too does ‘Piratess’, which starts out sounding like a slightly smoother David Bowie track and incorporates an interesting array of instruments, from strings to a glockenspiel. However, it then lunges into a distinctly unremarkable chorus and a jagged guitar solo which feel ill-at-odds with the song’s jazzy beginnings, and consequently loses its way.
Annoyingly, this is something of a common motif on I Am Very Far. There are parts of excellent songs sprinkled throughout, but they’re never coherently combined, and the result is that many tracks are tinged with promise which isn’t fulfilled. The album’s a combination of disparate parts whose result is something of a Frankenstein’s monster, able to beguile at points but also capable of hitting disappointing depths.
All of which is a great shame, because when Okkervil are at their best, they can produce some wonderful stuff. The brass-spattered ‘Lay of the Last Survivor’ is a highlight, Will Sheff’s plaintive vocals backed by wonderful harmonies at the song’s climax, and the group’s use of orchestral instruments sounding inventive and intelligent.
The second half of I Am Very Far brings in a more expansive, post-rock sound; however, rather than adapt it to their existing style, the band tailor themselves to it. The result feels uneven and overlong, the lengthy ambient sections never really lifting off in the way that an Explosions in the Sky track would; consequently, the latter portion of the record drags all too often. This new ersatz post-rock sound doesn’t lend itself well to the tracks it’s used on, the distorted final minute of ‘Show Yourself’ sounding more like an add-on rather than an integral part of the music. Frustratingly, there are also moments where Okkervil’s skill for producing infectious folk-rock shines through, whether in the opening to ‘Your Past Life As A Blast’ or the accented chorus of ‘Wake And Be Fine’.
The positives are that despite this being a somewhat mediocre release by Okkervil’s standards, never reaching the wonderful folky highs of Down the River of Golden Dreams or the rock tenacity of The Stage Names, it still contains a wealth of creativity and a host of good ideas. The problem with the Texans’ sixth release is that its quality parts are never sufficiently well-assembled to form a consistently quality product. At times brilliant, at times extremely frustrating, I Am Very Far has all the elements of a good record, but doesn’t ever quite reach the level you want it to.