I’ve listened to Will Sheff at a distance all these years, and I’ve missed a lot. He’s always reminded me a bit of the two Marks: Kozelek and Eitzel, with bits of Springsteen thrown into the mix. This is a very personal album for Sheff, recorded without his old backing band, but instead created with a brand new group of NY based musicians over three days at a Long Island studio that hosts the Neve 8068 console which recorded Steely Dan’s Aja and John Lennon’s Double Fantasy.
Marissa Nadler sings on it and composer Nathan Thatcher wrote beautiful orchestral arrangements. Sheff went through troubled times between 2013-2015, losing band members and also spending time in hospice with his dying grandfather. This is reflected in this somber song suite, a melange of folk with jazz elements, with crystalline production and moving lyrics.
“Okkervil RIP” opens the album, but it could very well close the album, as it’s an aural epitaph. This song reflects on change and moving on, and the narrator sounds none too happy about it. In Sheff’s own words: ‘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 realized 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.’
“Call Yourself Renee” follows in a similar vein, and is very sad but has beautiful orchestral passages. The other instrumentation is minimal, punctuated only by tinkling piano, understated percussion, and acoustic guitar. The lyrics are almost stream of consciousness, coming fast and furious in the way that Springsteen often did in his early years. It sweeps by in symphonic splendor, and seven minutes is up before you know it.
“The Industry” seems to address a changing music industry, and the disappointment that comes when people or situations let you down. “Comes Indiana Through the Smoke” is about the ship Sheff’s grandfather served on during the Pacific Theater of World War II. The trumpet heard on this song (played by C.J Camarieri from yMusic) belonged to his grandfather, who was a jazz musician. It’s a fitting tribute, and I am sure his grandfather would be proud. The song itself is lovely, reminding me a little of the work laid down by NY orchestral pop group, The Sharp Things.
“Judey On a Street” is an obvious love song, married to sunny days and an almost motorik vibe not unlike The Feelies. “She Would Look for Me” is pastoral, romantic, and has both flute and Marissa Nadler on board. Tinkling piano and warm organ tones add to the misty, morning feel of this lovely song. It’s a longer selection, and meanders down the path trod by fellow troubadours such as Nick Drake and Van Morrison.
“Mary On a Wave” is complex and interesting, with many diverse layers happening at once. Backing vocals murmur words you can’t make out, while many other instruments emerge at different points, and it has the slow swing of vintage 70s confessional music. “Days Spent Floating in the Halfbetween” is the ninth and final song and kind of floats around and through you, ripe with shimmering guitar, keyboards, acoustic bass, and restrained percussion. It’s as good a representative of the seismic shift in Sheff’s creative output as any other song here.
If I have any complaints, it’s that some of the songs linger too long and a shorter duration would be just as effective. It’s definitely a late night or very early morning album, filled with interesting personal tidbits, vivid imagery, and shimmering, sun-kissed melodies, all while a pervasive sadness fills the expansiveness of the listening experience. Highly recommended for fans of all the artists mentioned here, and for any existing Okkervil River fans.