Published Sep 07, 2016The spectre of death hangs heavy over Away, the eighth full-length from folk-rockers Okkervil River. Written in the wake of the death of lyricist/vocalist Will Sheff's grandfather, Away also marks the band's first record with a wholly revamped lineup, but the sharp thrust into the unknown is handled with a zen-like feeling of relief and appreciation instead of fear.
While Okkervil River's meticulous arrangements have always been characterized by a full, lush sound, providing a veritable ecosystem of emotive folk rock, Away trades in the razor-sharp orchestral details of earlier releases for psychedelic swathes of instrumental colour that paints vast, blurry backdrops here.
Away reconciles the Springsteenian rock anthems of I Am Very Far and The Silver Gymnasium with the folk sound of earlier albums, but replaces the early wide-eyed optimism and Black Sheep Boy-era poetic brooding with a hazy psychedelia. There are growing pains: while anchored by strong early cuts "Okkervil River R.I.P." and "The Industry," the album's middle occasionally lags due to lengthy, jammy endings and airy orchestral passages until the sax-and-choir-bolstered "Mary on a Wave," which the album rides out through its blissful close.
Sheff's lyrics, while typically verbose but economic, are more rambling here, but it's refreshing to hearing him cut loose. The palpable sense of liberation is best heard on the fittingly titled "Frontman in Heaven," even if a phrase like "It's gonna be a funky fresh Christmas and I don't think I can handle it" is enough to give anyone pause.
But it's this freedom and excitement that makes Away sound more like the first chapter of a new book, one that Sheff and company seem eager to write without a clue where they're going, armed with a vast palette of instruments and influences. (ATO Records)