Will Sheff, long the emotional and lyrical center of Okkervil River, finds himself in a lonely place on Away, the eighth album from a band that seems more like a personal project with each passing effort. Sheff’s sense of isolation is mostly a symbolic one, copped by the narrator of songs that alternate between evocations of remote melancholy and winsome, sardonic sourness, but also seems sprung from the singer-songwriter’s status, after 18 years, as Okkervil River’s sole steady member. Faced with an apparent creative and personal crisis, Sheff, or at least the fictional version of himself he’s created across a slew of increasingly biographical albums, confronts these problems throughout a nine-track suite of dense, allusive songs. These songs cohere to form a shambling, phantasmagoric tapestry of fears, doubts, and anxieties about the author’s past and future.
The focus on mournful solitude is established straight off with “Okkervil River R.I.P.,” a tongue-in-cheek requiem whose acoustic afterlife conceit moves from a limbo of tour stops and chance encounters to more explicit invocations of doom, incorporating admissions of personal tragedy and allusions to the lonely deaths of semi-obscure musicians. Always interested in constructing narrative arcs which develop albums into tempestuous large-scale analyses of particular fixations and concerns, Sheff draws out this forlorn frame of mind throughout the entirety of Away, playing up a portrayal of himself as a detached flaneur, buffeted by tragedy and malaise, suffering the inimitable loneliness of the perpetually touring musician.
Away therefore stands as the dark flipside to the warm but complicated nostalgia of 2013’s The Silver Gymnasium, whose ’80s-inspired power-pop anthems hearkened back to the sights and sounds of Sheff’s New Hampshire childhood. This album is also a throwback, though its wistfulness is less specific and less overtly displayed, mostly in a lingering affection for classic-rock sprawl as well as its analog AM-radio textures, while also incorporating an essential awareness of morbidity as a prerequisite of an overwrought fondness for times gone by. The results are often tepid, lacking the scope and connectivity of Okkervil River’s best material, but Sheff remains a thoughtful, always perceptive songwriter, constantly cataloguing his own subtle shifts in perspective through parallel transitions in form. The album operates in this reflective mode while imagining songwriting as both a sanctuary against and a precipitator of individual isolation, sketching out and scrutinizing small moments from the forlorn remove of the permanent observer.
So while a track like “Okkervil River R.I.P.” is fundamentally more of the same (a gloomy, erudite interweaving of personal and musical history peppered with bits of referential trivia, black humor, and morose self-pity), it also establishes the album’s template of familiar sounds employed as a shield against bigger questions. Long songs like “Call Yourself Renee” and “Judey on a Street” flirt with the stable safety of pop concision, before eventually spiraling off into rock-instrumental roundelays, rotating from one element to another before slowly petering out. Shaken by the wobbly ground of his itinerant profession, Sheff seems equally troubled by vaguely sketched romantic troubles and the recent death of his grandfather, whose spectral status here stands secondary only to that of the phantom narrator himself.
By the time things have stretched past the vibrantly cluttered faux-farewell of “Frontman in Heaven” to the ethereal postscript of “Days Spent Floating (In the Halfbetween),” it’s clear that, despite some conceptual shakiness and a few instances of turgid sentimentality, Sheff is doing fine on his own, continuing to detail unsteady emotional ground with a characteristic mixture of self-assurance and existential dread.