Death. The loneliest guest of all. It’s something that we can’t escape, so it seems only natural that it finds itself as the central topic of numerous cultural outputs. Books. Movies. Albums.
What is less obvious is how any particular individual will handle a death, and how that will then, in turn, impact their creative output. In this instance, Okkervil River ’s upcoming release: ‘Away’.
It’s not that you would ever go looking for references to death (or anything else for that matter) within the words of an album from the outset, but when the album’s opening track, and lead single, is titled ‘Okkervil River R.I.P’, it sort of confronts you head on. Sometimes that’s just how it is: Clapton’s ‘Tears in Heaven’ and Band of Horses’ ‘The Funeral’ do similar. It’s right in front of you.
In a statement about the album, and it’s eventual coming to life, frontman Will Sheff explained: “I spent a good deal of time in hospice sitting with my grandfather, who was my idol, while he died. I felt like I didn’t know where I belonged.” Just one of the deaths that feel central to this record.
But all that considered, ‘Okkervil River R.I.P’ is actually quite beautiful. A clearly personal track is supported by a gentle fingerpicked intro, and decorated with pretty piano fills throughout. It is wistful, and dreamlike, and the words both reminisce and ask questions that there are probably no answers to. Although, the line “So give me one last kiss, in your pink silk dress I guess” seems like a painful conclusion in between more gentle nostalgic thoughts.
They’re all quite big ideas to handle; the line: “you were bigger than life: you were giant: you were earth-size” resonates in ‘Comes Indiana Through The Smoke’ – further highlighting the size of the cloud that covers Sheff, and the weight that must be on his shoulders.
‘Judey on a Street’ is a less than cryptic reference to Judee Sill; the American songstress who is posthumously getting far more credit for her talents than she did before her death in 1975. “You’re just a girl on a street” Sheff sings over a placid Arcade Fire-style jam, the wind section sounding like it’s come straight from an early Polyphonic Spree recording. Sheff’s stream of consciousness vocal delivery as strong here as it is throughout the whole record.
The whole album feels, as the opening track does, that Will Sheff is trying to clear his mind. The instrumentation and vocal narrative don’t at all sound contrived, and flow from start to finish with some sharp twists along the way; as if Sheff has too much to say and he needs to get it all out at the same time. The songs are long and filled with complex melodies.
Coming full circle, back to the album’s opener, the line: “but I didn’t open up my mouth just to piss and moan” becomes almost a tagline for the album. It’s not a man feeling sorry for himself. Quite the opposite in fact. It’s a man with one voice, one mind, and a thousand thoughts. Quite how he’s got them all of his thoughts into nine, albeit it long songs is impressive in itself. The way the songs then manage to sound so concise is even more impressive, and is a testament to Sheff.