When an album starts with a track called “Famous Tracheotomies”, there are two routes the record can take: an Alice Cooper/Misfits type splatterfest or a tender, considerate, Serious work.
Will Sheff being Will Sheff, and this being Okkervil River, we get something of a mixture between the two: this is an album of serious, po-faced tenderness mixed with a healthy dollop of irony.
On the track, Sheff quite literally mentions the famous tracheotomies of Ray Davies, Gary Coleman, Dylan Thomas and Mary Wells against a backdrop of restrained, gleaming guitars and keys. There’s even a brief refrain of Waterloo Sunset at the end of the track to show you how serious he is. Maybe. This is, after all, an Okkervil River record.
The entire thing has a consistent, lush sound that falls somewhere between gleaming Eighties late-night radio and pillowy, relaxed dream-pop. It’s a sound Sheff does very well – for instance, on the Family Song, there’s acres of reverb stretching across a seemingly endless horizon. “Don’t Move Back to L.A.” is a widescreen trailer for heartbroken rock, sounding like it has split the difference between The Cure and Arcade Fire. “Shelter Song” is slow, sensual, and even a little sexy – but this being Okkervil River, the lyrics are about the devastated feelings children get when they think about their future.
The only real palette-cleanser here is “Pulled Up by The Ribbon”, which sounds like The War on Drugs and Springsteen but carries the rhythmic heft of The Clash. It stands out on the record because of the sheer reckless abandon in both the sound and the playing – Sheff’s voice becomes a cracked Robert Smith howl, and the propulsive rhythm pounds and grinds.
Talking about Sheff’s lyrics is a fruitless task, because you know by the end of one song whether you ‘get’ him or not. He’s like the Jarvis Cocker of Americana. No review could convince some listeners that he’s not taking the piss out of them or himself – because there are times where he clearly is:
“A human being was shaped by God/It’s just an ape, with changes made.”
That (and the ridiculous lyrics of “External Actor”) aside, this album is Sheff’s Tunnel of Love or Full Moon Fever – it’s tender and loving, but gruff and macho when it needs to be. It’s a soft reboot. It’s a new path to take. There’s the widest palette of any Okkervil River album, but it’s steady and doesn’t throw any needless curveballs. Sheff has obviously mastered his craft and is just pursuing the perfection of it – and it shows.